At some point during his second reign, former Ugandan president Milton Obote asked what would happen to the definition of democracy if all members of the opposition opted to join the ruling party?
The question was a direct dig at Western diplomats who had expressed misgivings about the slew of seemingly involuntary defections by legislators from the opposition Democratic Party to the ruling Uganda Peoples Congress.
Today, the idea of totalitarian domination still pervades African politics. The political opposition are seen as adversaries rather than partners with a legitimate stake in the affairs of their country.
It has become a tried and trusted tactic for ruling parties in East Africa and beyond to strangle opposition parties by poaching their leaders or simply enticing their subordinates to defect. In whatever language it may be clothed, the result is a weak political culture, where the political elite reach consensus at the expense of accountability to the masses.
That is what has happened in Uganda, where opposition stalwarts are getting co-opted into government, often after a long period of economic starvation and political suppression. While pre and post-election coalitions are not a bad thing, the motivation is questionable and, more often than not, ruling parties guilty of gross mismanagement and corruption simply want to silence the sources of possible dissent.
In Kenya, Uhuru’s Jubilee succeeded in compromising the opposition when it “adopted” Raila Odinga and his Orange Democratic Movement. The saving grace were the dissenting Jubilee members who formed an internal opposition within the ruling party. The recent cooperation agreement between President Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement and Nobert Mao’s Democratic Party follows the same plot. In Rwanda, the Rwandan Patriotic Front is likely to be the only beneficiary from the falling out in the Green party. It will be years before the opposition in Tanzania fully recovers from the witch-hunt of the Magufuli years.
It is the legitimate desire of any individual or organisation to pursue growth. However, this should be accomplished within acceptable norms and traditions. Political competition is healthy and central to the effective functioning of democracy. Political parties form the core of this. In mature democracies with functional institutions, ruling parties only seek a sufficient majority to drive their political and economic agenda for the country.
A common argument against balanced power is that it can create a destructive stalemate. At some point in the 1980s, Italy and Japan became synonymous with unstable governments, yet they held together. Stalemates create inertia but absolute power is worse, because it opens room for its abuse and misuse.
Democracy loses some of its functionality when a dominant group controls power. The opposition, therefore, is a necessary counterforce to the risks inherent in absolute power. Yet a fragmented opposition maybe as bad as no opposition because it can be diversionary and can become transactional in a negative sense.
That is why apparent election stalemates might not be such a bad thing for emerging democracies. A razor-thin electoral margin gives the ruling side just enough room to forge ahead with its agenda while the opposition has sufficient numbers to pull the brakes on governance misadventures.