Why Uganda’s opposition should take voter turnout seriously if they ever want to win elections
On March 15th, the Electoral Commission declared opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) candidate, Paul Mwiru, elected as Member of Parliament (MP) for Jinja East constituency in a by-election. Since then, opposition leaders have been congratulating themselves on this “big win.” Yet the results, when properly analysed, should cause the opposition in Uganda to pause and reflect.
It is commonly assumed that opposition’s strongest base of support is in urban areas. This assumption is proven in election and opinion polls. The opposition pick a higher percentage of votes in urban and peri urban areas.Indeed, in all opinion polls, the higher you climb on the income and education ladders, and the farther you get away from rural areas (or the closer youget into urban areas), the higher is the hostility to President Yoweri Museveni. Increasingly, the demographics are working against Museveni as young people, especially those who are exposed, don’t like him.
Now Jinja is the second largest urban area in Uganda, and it is teaming with youths hostile to Museveni’s rule. So winning a parliamentary seat in it should be an easy job.
Secondly, in this by-election, the opposition deployed nearly all their heavy weights: Kizza Besigye, the most popular opposition figure;Patrick Amuriat, the new FDC party president; Mugisha Muntu, a former party president, the opposition’s new kid on the block, Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine and Nobert Mao,DP’s suave and moderate president.
Yet in spite of this heavy deployment of its most powerful figures in a constituency that was theirs for the taking, the opposition victory was not impressive. Let us look at the numbers: total number of registered voters was 29,000. Of these only about 11,958 (or 40%) showed up to vote. Mwiru got 6,654 votes (21% of all the registered voters). Meanwhile NRM’s Nathan Nabeta Igeme got 5,043. This means Mwiru beat him by paltry 1,600 votes. FDC should have won this constituency by landslide. Yet Mwiru was not voted by 80% of the registered voters!
For many years now, the opposition in Uganda have refused to address this problem of low voter turnout. Yet it is critical for them. It tells us two things: First, although the vast majority of educated and urbanised youthful Ugandans are increasingly hostile to Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, they do not find existing opposition parties and their candidates attractive.
In elections, they prefer to stay home for lack of choice. But this also means that they see the opposition as not being better than NRM. The second lesson is that the opposition in Uganda lack basic organisational infrastructure to rally its supporters in its strongholds to bring them to vote on polling day.
I have argued times without number that opposition leaders take voters for granted. They assume that because many people have lost confidence in the Museveni administration, then they automatically support the opposition. Yet this is not the case. This assumption has been fatal to the growth of votes for the opposition across the country. The fact that a woman recently divorced her abusive husband does not automatically mean she is willing to marry you. But Uganda’s opposition is hostile even to the most modest criticism like this. So they live in their won make-believe world that somehow they always win and are only rigged out of victory.
However, their inability by opposition to register high voter turnout in their strongholds is the reason they can NEVER win the presidency. It also explains their inability to grow their numbers in parliament. For instance, in the 2016 presidential elections, only 800,000 voters out of two million registered voters (40%) showed up to vote in Kampala City and its surrounding Wakiso District. And these are the hot beds of Besigye’s support.