Wednesday March 26 2014

Political parties in Uganda started on a wrong footing

By William G. Naggaga

The origin of political parties as we know them today can be traced back to the 18th century in continental Europe, Britain and the United States with the emergence of cadre political parties and mass –based parties. The cadre political parties were created by the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie, namely land owners and the captains of industry and commerce and related professionals. While the aristocrats lived in the countryside, the bourgeoisie occupied the urban areas.

These parties were made of elites and suffrage was limited to those who owned property, had professions and paid taxes. The masses and women (and blacks in United States) did not have a vote. Universal suffrage came much later as the masses gained education and could be trusted with a vote and society had evolved to treat all people as equals.

The mass-based parties where membership was based upon payment of a membership fee were created around the same time in continental Europe. While the mass-based parties were not based on professions and property ownership, their membership was also made up of the elites in society who could pay the required fees. Besides they had to be educated.

Both categories of parties had a common objective, namely, to gain political power and protect their interests and ideologies. Even when in opposition, the losing party’s representatives ensured that the ruling party was kept in check, until the wheels of power turned in their direction.

In the United States, the cadre parties evolved into the present day Republican and Democratic parties and in Britain, the Conservative and Labour parties. In continental Europe, the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Socialist and Communist parties are the descendants of the mass-based parties. All these parties have transformed themselves overtime to adopt to modern realities, without losing their core principles.
More than 30 years ago, I read a book titled “The Indispensable Enemies – The politics of misrule in America”, written by an American academician.

In this book, he castigated the Republican and Democratic parties for monopolising the political space in the United States and blocking others from entering the field. According to the author, these two parties, whose policies have increasingly become similar, were using their financial and organisational muscle to kill off competition. What the author wrote of the US is true of Britain, where the Conservative and Labour parties dominate British politics.

These parties may have similar policies since they all have moved to centralist positions, a move dictated by the predominance of the middle class among the voting public; whose interests are identical, be they democrats, republicans, conservatives or labour. This has no doubt narrowed political space for prospective new entrants but it was not a deliberate policy by these existing parties to exclude them.

Our political parties can learn many lessons from these old parties in the West on how to evolve into timeless organisations. Uganda, and indeed the rest of Africa, had a false beginning when it came to party politics. Parties were created for the purpose of agitating for independence and many failed to transition from agitation to good governance, leading to coups and counter coups. The parties in the US, Britain, for example, may not be perfect but they endeavour to deliver on their promises and do respect the will of the people.

Mr Naggaga is an economist, administrator and retired ambassador