Why the opposition is courting danger in seeking to field one candidate and the risks of a three horse race
Last week, the opposition was involved in skirmishes regarding the selection of a joint presidential candidate under The Democratic Alliance (TDA). The alliance seemed biased on selecting Amama Mbabazi to lead the fight against President Yoweri Museveni. But the most fanatical supporters of the opposition prefer Kizza Besigye. It will be extremely difficult for TDA to convince all sides to field one candidate. Here are the underlying factors.
There are four major political tendencies in Uganda today. The first are militants seeking revolutionary change of the status quo. They want government to commit to wide-ranging electoral reforms that create an even playing-field before any elections are held. However, they also believe the Museveni administration is not willing to accept any meaningful reform. Thus this group believes it should organise mass political action to force government to yield to their demands or even precipitate “regime collapse”. It is led by Besigye and is supported by such people as Nandala Mafabi, Erias Lukwago, David Tinyefuza, and Jack Sabiti.
The second group consists of opposition moderates seeking evolutionary change. They believe that despite the existing political restrictions and the intransigence of many in NRM, it is still possible to advance reform. This can be achieved by developing a long term vision. The opposition should build effective institutional infrastructure to match political demands with organisational capacity. Without this, political demands become empty rhetoric that NRM can ignore. This tendency is led by Uganda’s most noble politician, Mugisha Muntu, and includes such people as Ogenga Latigo, Abdul Katuntu, Amanya Mushega, Augustine Ruzindana and Norbert Mao.
The third group is the NRM reformists. This group believes the NRM has done a good job in rebuilding the state and economy and has advanced the democratic project. But in spite of this, it recognizes that there is a lot to be done most especially to organise a peaceful transition of power from Museveni. To progress, there is need for reform inside NRM. They recognise they cannot win the internal political contest inside the ruling party. But they can link up with groups One and Two under TDA to promote political reform and potential for a transition. This group is led by Mbabazi.
The fourth tendency is in NRM. It is composed of party diehards who want NRM to resist all reform. This group sees electoral and political reforms as a threat to its hold on power. It is willing to use the coercive instruments of the state to crash its opponents. It is aware that its biggest threat is groups Two and Three because they appeal to a large section of NRM supporters and independents. Ironically, although Groups One and Four are at the extreme end of the political spectrum(and therefore subjectively bitter enemies) they are objective allies – each one of them needs the other to thrive.
Indeed, opposition militants have been fighting rearguard action to isolate and destroy the moderate opposition. They see moderates as the biggest threat to their political objectives. Therefore, they accuse anyone who shows any moderation and understanding with Museveni as a sellout. For a while, this approach had been successful in weakening the moderates. However, Mbabazi’s entry into the race has realigned political forces and forced a reassessment of these accusations. The violence meted against him by the police, in spite of his very moderate views against NRM and Museveni, has cemented his reputation as a genuine agent of reform. It has also exposed NRM’s extremists. This has taken the militant opposition by surprise, forcing Besigye into positions and actions that will erode his star.
The strategy of TDA was to bring groups One and Two together by picking fights with group Three. They need to demonstrate to Ugandans that Group One is too extreme to be a vehicle for meaningful reform; and that group Four can be brought to the table if the threat posed by group One is eroded. TDA wants to build a new political center that could form a majority.This calculation seems to be working as last week’s events somehow exposed Besigye as another power hungry politician not very different from Museveni. The violence and intolerance of his group and their internal fist-fights and “kidnap” of Besigye last week further made the case against them.
Yet although undermining Besigye and his militants should be a strategic objective, it is not prudent tactically. A joint candidate is a good idea on paper. However, it is extremely difficult to execute because of the contradictory interests and egos of its different players. For TDA to work effectively, you need politicians of Muntu’s character and values. He is the only major politician in Uganda who will place the wider interests of the opposition above his personal ambition and ego. Neither Besigye nor Mbabazi can do this. If Mbabazi wins the TDA endorsement, Besigye will find reasons (many of them justified) to run on FDC ticket. The reverse is true if Besigye wins the TDA nomination. Mbabazi will run as an independent.
Secondly in seeking to field a joint presidential candidate TDA is exposing the internal contradictions of the opposition to the public and coming across as disorganized. This plays into Museveni’s hands, as his NRM ship looks more united and organised to lead. Yet opinion polls show that the best option for the opposition is to field both Besigye and Mbabazi. Why? When Besigye runs against Museveni in a two horse race, there is enthusiasm in opposition ranks leading to high turnout. But he also generates fear in Museveni supporters and NRM-leaning independents who turnout to vote against Besigye. When Mbabazi goes head to head against Museveni, he nibbles at the president’s vote. However, many fanatical opposition supporters stay home, and the opposition vote falls.
The best case scenario for the opposition is therefore a three horse race where Museveni runs against both Besigye and Mbabazi. Here, Besigye can hold the opposition base and Mbabazi can appeal to NRM moderates and independents. Only then can the two have a chance of forcing Museveni into a second round. Clearly, united the opposition falls; divided it stands. However, in a three-way race, Besigye is most likely to be the first runup, and therefore the candidate to face Museveni in a second round. This result would strengthen the extremists against the moderates. In this case TDA may need to focus on 2021 when Besigye is weakened than 2016.