Why do opposition parties struggle in their quest to gain political power?

Saturday August 19 2017

Uganda anti-riot police arrest opposition

Uganda anti-riot police arrest opposition leader Kizza Besigye in February 2016. FILE PHOTO | AFP 

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Kenya’s opposition political party recorded a fourth straight loss in the country’s General Election on August 8, after leader Raila Odinga trailed incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta.

Just four days earlier, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame of the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) had trounced his opponents — former journalist and independent candidate Phillipe Mpayimana and Democratic Green Party leader Frank Habineza who garnered less than two per cent of the total votes between them against the president’s over 98 per cent.

Last year, Uganda President Yoweri Museveni through his ruling party National Resistance Movement managed a comfortable albeit contested defeat of the opposition, at 60.6 per cent, to retain power in Kampala. His main challenger, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party, got 35.6 per cent of the votes.

In 2015, Tanzania’s dominant party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) maintained its decades-old hold onto power by beating its opponents in the Chama Cha Democrasia na Maendelo (Chadema).

CCM’s John Pombe Magufuli had an almost 20 per cent gap between himself and his closest challenger Edward Lowassa, at 58.46 per cent against 39.9 per cent.

Mr Odinga has now challenged President Kenyatta’s 10 percentage point win at the country’s Supreme Court.


While the numbers represent only the run for the presidency, representation in executive positions is minimal in each of the four countries.

The exception is Rwanda, where the Constitution guarantees the opposition a 50 per cent share of Cabinet positions. Any appointment of opposition members to executive positions in the other three countries only drains the opposition of much needed numbers, while muting others who expect similar appointments.

For his Cabinet, President Museveni tapped from the opposition Betty Amongi from the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), Nakiwala Kiyingi from the Democratic Party and Betty Kamya, a former presidential candidate and leader of the Uganda Federal Alliance party. 

Opposition parties also fare badly in parliamentary and local government representation.

Tanzania’s CCM enjoys a clear majority, with 252 seats in Parliament out of 367 (188 constituency seats and 64 women special seats), and the main opposition party Chadema has just 34 directly elected seats and 36 special women seats. The Civic United Front follows has 42 seats (32 direct constituency and 10 women seats).

Uganda’s NRM enjoys a parliamentary majority with 293 of the 426 seats. The party is followed by independent MPs with 66 seats, while the combined opposition has 57 shared between FDC at 36, the Democratic Party at 15 and UPC with six seats. The army, which usually sides with the ruling party, has 10 special seats.


What does the poor showing of the opposition mean for democracy in the region? 

In Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, the opposition numbers are too small to significantly challenge the ruling party and influence policy.

Lack of numbers in elected positions means less financial resources for the opposition.

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Crispy Kaheru, an elections specialist and the co-ordinator of Citizens Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (CCEDU), says that the opposition’s poor showing means that they need to “go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate themselves. They need to realise that they cannot continue doing business as usual, and design new strategies like forming alliances and moving from the traditional template of social ideals that framed the formation of parties at Independence.”

In its report of Tanzania’s 2015 elections, the Commonwealth Observer group noted: “The Group observed the dominance of the governing CCM party in the election campaign. They appeared extremely well-resourced and organised. The CCM, as the governing party, appeared to enjoy advantages of incumbency. The opposition parties, namely Chadema, CUF and others, also had profiles on the ground but appeared to be less resourced, which had an impact on the conduct of their campaign.”

Mr Kaheru, a member of the African Union expert panel of election observers and has observed elections in Uganda, Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe and South Africa, noted, “There is a need to re-examine the advantages of incumbency in elections vis a vis opposition in the region. There are of course reasons that explain this,” he said.

Control of security and agencies that coerce the electorate, control of state coffers, and public service apparatus aid in the creation of a “firm network for them to carry out campaigning effectively,” he added. Incumbents also enjoy the advantage of setting electoral legislation.

While a number of opposition parties support the RPF and actively and openly campaigned for President Kagame in the just concluded elections, it is difficult to tell exactly how their collaboration aids alternative voices and their ability to keep the party in power in check.

Opposition parties have cried foul over manipulation of processes, a tilted playing field, incumbents access and abuse of resources and outright rigging. However, their own lack of organisation, inability to guard their votes and inadequate resources have played a role in their losses.