We are back to that period when it is an exciting but also a bad time to be an opposition party leader in Uganda.
In less than 24 months, we shall be deciding who will lead us for another five years. For leaders of political parties who understand their role to include running for president, it is time to flex political muscle.
There are several reasons why this is a good period. First, as preparations for the campaigns intensify, party leaders become a focus of attention for numerous watchers. There is much interest in what they intend to do about running, how they intend to do it, and who with.
For those with a special liking for hogging the limelight, this is the time to gain maximum exposure on television and in other media for their political agenda. For party leaders who are considered to be influential, this period offers great opportunities for making deals with others seeking to build alliances. The scope for playing hard-to-get in order to raise one’s bargaining power is huge.
For leaders of small parties that, truth be told, are insignificant electorally, there is the prospect of piggybacking on bigger rivals in the name of opposition unity.
Already, opposition leaders and their advisors and analysts are spending time in meetings, laying out strategies they believe will this time help them defeat President Yoweri Museveni. Inter-party alliances are being mooted or have already been forged, and joint candidacies for the presidency and parliament are being mooted.
Alliances and joint candidates are now seen as “the only way” to oust Museveni, not least because in the past, divisions and rivalries among opposition politicians and their political parties have been seen as enabling Museveni to win.
Official data from the Independent Electoral Commission may show that Museveni usually gathers more votes than all of them combined, but that is not a discussion we should be getting into right now. Museveni’s opponents rarely want to hear it. Nor do members of the public who believe that the said data do not even begin to tell the story of what actually happens on polling day in terms of counting the ballots.
One effect of not wanting to go into the details is that a single story, not necessarily false but also not complete, has been built around electoral outcomes and what opposition parties must do to change things.
The single story is simply that the one thing that explains Museveni’s victories is playing with numbers. According to the narrative, so extensive is the rigging that, to defeat him, opposition parties must focus on protecting their votes so that they are not stolen.
There is rigging, of course. But there are other explanations, too. And this is where we come to why this period is such a bad time to be an opposition leader in Uganda.
All the talk about the need to forge alliances, sponsor joint candidates and protect their votes against theft disregards major hurdles that, together with rigging, explain why Museveni keeps winning.
For one thing, opposition parties are universally cash-strapped. Legislation pertaining to party financing not only bars opposition parties from raising money from external sources, it also ensures that the ruling party takes the lion’s share of the money the state is obliged to give to parties for their political activities.
Nervousness among potential local financiers about being found out and the possible repercussions further limits the ability of opposition parties to raise money.
And so does the unwillingness of ordinary Ugandans to give money to political parties.
Without money, the ability of opposition parties to take their message or messages directly to potential voters is severely limited. So is their capacity to recruit local agents to protect their votes. Very few local agents, including those of the ruling party, are willing to serve as unpaid volunteers and, as a result, are usually easy to compromise.
Enter partisan public servants. Everywhere across the country, they seem to feel obliged to promote the interests of the ruling party and go out of their way to do so without even being asked.
Which is why opposition activities are routinely blocked or disrupted by various categories of local public officials acting in unison as if responding to manipulation by invisible puppeteers.
Unable to hold public events to rally their supporters, opposition parties stand no chance against a ruling party whose agents are free to roam where they want, when they want.
Easily the biggest weapon in the hands of the ruling party and its leadership are the advantages of incumbency.
Nothing illustrates this better than their ability to deploy public financial resources in ways that are designed to secure them support.
There is no other reason why, all of a sudden, we learn of massive allocations of financial resources to special programmes for youth, women, army veterans, and politically troublesome regions, as well as longstanding debts owed to cultural institutions.
Against all this, emphasis on “protecting votes” can only guarantee continued unhappiness for the opposition.
Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]