Why the chaos and violence in the ruling party are a signal of its strength and weakness of the opposition
The just concluded parliamentary and district primaries of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) were characterised by unprecedented violence, vote rigging and organisational chaos. For many analysts, this is evidence of NRM’s organisational incompetence and therefore a sign of its imminent collapse. These analysts predict that those who lost in the party primaries feel aggrieved and are now easy prey for the opposition. Sadly, this is a false hope. On the contrary, the opposite conclusion holds more water – that NRM’s chaotic election is a sign of its strength, not weakness. It is evidence that the opposition has little chance in this election. Here is why.
In Kenya, parliamentary candidates who lose in one party’s primaries contest in another party primary, to get a chance at winning the same seat. In some rare but dramatic cases, a candidate can hop from one party to another such that by end of election season he/she would have contested in four party primaries. This is because such party affiliation offers a real chance of success. This is the opposite in Uganda. In 2011, many NRM candidates were openly rigged out of the primaries and none joined other opposition parties. They chose to run as independents. There are hopes that many losers in NRM primaries will join Amama Mbabazi because he has money to finance them as Go Forward candidates. Even if this turns out to be true, very few will join him.
Put yourself in the shoes of a Ugandan politician. There are many people who want to be MPs because they genuinely want to serve their constituents and the country. However, many such public spirited Ugandans recognise that NRM is too strong to be defeated. The best way to win is run on the NRM ticket.
There are others who join NRM opportunistically as the numbers of service-minded people have been dwindling as NRM lost its ideological soul to become a cash and carry organisation. The vast majority of politicians want to serve their personal interests and winning an election on the NRM ticket is an opportunity for self-advancement.
So what are the chances that having lost in NRM primaries such people will succeed on the Go Forward ticket? Go Forward can never rival the state in money to finance its candidates. Remember NRM relies on the state for campaign funds. Besides, running on the Go Forward or FDC ticket is equated by many people to action against Museveni and the state. Many influential local elites who would otherwise become your campaign managers and agents will pull back, avoiding open hostility with the state. This is the reason many losers in NRM primaries prefer to run as independents.
The vast majority of NRM MPs and district councilors hold views similar to those of the opposition. They keep in NRM either out of pragmatic expedience (recognising that there is limited chance of success in the opposition) or sheer opportunism (to be on the winning side). Thus, unlike the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), for example, the NRM is not held together by something bigger – like a shared ideology, vision, values or policy preferences. It is largely held together by power and the money, privileges and status this brings. I used to underestimate the strength of power as glue to hold an organisation together. But I have since outgrown that naivety.
Of course there are some constituencies where NRM is weak (especially in urban areas) or where an individual opposition politician has a strong personal reputation (like FDC’s Jack Sabiti in Kabale). Here, a candidate can run on an opposition party ticket with reasonable chances of success. But these are very few. In the vast majority of parliamentary constituencies and local councils, it takes an incredible level of conviction for a serious politician to join the opposition as their flag bearer. Many opposition candidates choose to run as independents because they know doing so on an opposition party ticket undermines one’s chances of success.
This is the reason why in spite of the organisational chaos, the NRM primaries were violent and hotly contested because they represented the real competition for district and parliamentary seats. To become an MP depends heavily on being an NRM flag-bearer. The national election is just a coronation. This is the first signal that the opposition is going to perform even worse in the forthcoming district and parliamentary elections than they did in 2011. But most critically, the nature of the contest inside NRM signals that Museveni is going to win the presidential election easily.
More so, the defeat of incumbent ministers and MPs in the NRM primaries has done the cleanup exercise for Museveni. For many rural voters, the performance of the government is not attached to the President. If there is a failure in a given area, people (rightly but often wrongly) think that it is because their local district chairman or MP is not performing; a belief Museveni has actively cultivated and encouraged. In providing them opportunities to remove such leaders during ruling party primaries, Museveni has skillfully insulated himself from voter frustrations.
Thus, NRM primaries have allowed voters to vent their anger at those officials whom they think are responsible for poor public sector performance. But it has also provided the President with insights into the areas that are hotspots for the opposition to make inroads. During the campaign he will give special attention to those areas, investigating why a minister or incumbent MP lost. This is contrary to the view of politics by pundits at the national level who have an eagle eye’s view of the problems facing the country. People in Kampala think that voters across the country look at the problems with national outlook. Yet for many voters, elections are about local issues.
For example, the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, always tends to campaign on a nation platform, highlighting issues of a national character. His message in Kisoro is always similar to the one he delivers in Arua and Kotido – grand corruption, poor service delivery, deficits in democracy and human rights etc. These issues are important nationally. But they are not important (or are not well appreciated) at a local level. In thinking nationally, the opposition has lost sight of a critical lesson in elections: that politics is not always about grand issues of a national character. Often, it is about mundane issues which are of interest only to a particular locality.