The things opposition parties should ignore and those they need to focus on to have a chance in 2021
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | The opinion poll by Research World International (RWI) found Kyadondo East Member of Parliament (MP) Robert Kyagulanyi aka Bobi Wine (at 22%) far ahead of long-standing opposition leader, Dr. Kizza Besigye (at 13%). President Yoweri Museveni led the pack with 32%, but far below the 50% plus one he needs to win a first round. While this may be great for Bobi Wine, it has potential to be a risk to the opposition chances of beating Museveni in 2021. I will return to this subject towards the end of this article.
I am frustrated that opposition activists consistently spend most of their time complaining about how unfair the electoral process is. They have devoted most if their efforts in pushing for electoral reforms and changing of the composition of the Electoral Commission (EC). Indeed, in the opinion poll, 88% of opposition supporters said they do not trust the EC, while 45% of all respondents agreed with them, 43% trust the EC.
I think focusing on the EC is misguided and hides the real challenge of the opposition.
This article is, therefore, a dialogue with the opposition leaders and activists on how they can do better. It is advice they hate but which they need.
It makes little sense to expend your energies on a struggle – like disbanding the EC and changing the electoral laws – you have little chance of winning. The NRM has an overwhelming majority in parliament to block any serious electoral reform legislation. Museveni is not going to change the EC if that creates risks for him to lose power. It makes little sense to fight over what you have no control over.
The opposition should devote most of their effort on things that are under their direct control. They need to recognise that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the NRM to steal elections at the EC tallying center.
Most (if not all) of the rigging happens at the polling station and is largely through stuffing ballot boxes. This happens where the opposition has little or no presence during the balloting and counting of votes, itself a sign of opposition numerical weakness.
Yet I also think rigging is the least of the problems facing the opposition in Uganda; the real challenge is voter turnout; a factor that needs high levels of organisation to overcome.
But let us deal with vote rigging first: to monitor polling effectively, the opposition has to ensure it has polling agents at every polling station.
NRM can thwart this by either planting operatives as opposition polling agents or buyoff opposition agents to become complicit in the rigging on polling day.
To neutralize this threat, the opposition needs to have at least 20 polling agents at every polling station. This requires high level of organisational capacity which the opposition needs to build.
The best way to build an effective opposition organisation is to ensure that the opposition work together to field a candidate in every single geographic parliamentary constituency. This is vital because now the parliamentary candidate would have a personal interest in securing his/her own votes. Without parliamentary candidates, and indeed strong ones, the opposition individually and collectively cannot marshal enough organisational strength to place a large number of polling agents on every polling station.
For instance, during the 2016 presidential elections, the leading opposition party, the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) had candidates in only 201 out of 290 geographical constituencies, 61 out of 112 district woman MP slots, and 43 out of 112 district LCV chairpersons. It got worse at the lower LC elections. Most of these candidates were weak, and therefore unable to rally enough confidence in the population to generate effective polling agents. Why? Many high profile individuals are afraid to go against NRM because they can lose their careers and/or businesses.
However, the fact that an argument is rooted in one set of facts regarding a specific case does not mean all opportunities are closed. For instance, in many constituencies across the country, including in NRM’s bastion in Western Uganda, opposition supporters with a strong local profile in the church, mosque, business, and traditional institutions win elections. Therefore, the existence of risks and threats of going against the NRM does not automatically stop influential individuals from standing on the opposition ticket.
Friends in FDC told me that in the 2016 presidential elections, they had polling agents in barely 7,000 of the 28,010 polling stations i.e. 25%. The opposition can cry foul about NRM rigging. However, if it cannot get polling agents to watch its votes, why does it expect to get voters in such areas? Indeed, the fact that Besigye got many votes in places where he did not have polling agents only shows that the electoral process in Uganda is largely free and fair.
In the RWI poll, 22% of voters said they are undecided. Only 35% showed support for the two leading opposition candidates. This means that between Museveni’s 32% on the one hand and Boni Wine’s and Besigye’s 35% on the other is a 33% which needs to be courted. Yet opposition leaders and activists in Uganda think they are so awesome, everyone is on their side and, therefore, they do not need to win them over. This is perhaps the most tragic aspect of our politics.
For Museveni, the division of support between Bobi Wine and Besigye is an opportunity to play the two sides against each other.
Bobi Wine wants Besigye’s crown. Besigye and his supporters are unlikely to surrender it without a fight. First they think their man has made enormous sacrifices to surrender his crown of an upstart. Second they do not trust Bobi Wine to remain true to the anti-Museveni cause, suspecting that his business interests and his personal flexibility can lead him to be bought off or to compromise. And finally, Besigye’s people think Bobi Wine lacks the competence and pedigree to become president.
This is likely to allow Museveni to exploit such differences, stimulate and simulate a fight between the two sides as he sits back and watches the sparks fly. As the two sides fight, many Ugandans will lose hope in the opposition as a viable alternative. This may lead to a nose dive in election turnout – exactly what Museveni needs to win even when most of the country is tired of him.