Monday April 21 2014

What do Uganda’s political parties actually stand for?

By Dorothy M. Tuma

Choosing something to eat from a restaurant menu is easy when you are familiar with the listed options. Your knowledge about each dish allows you to select the item that best appeals to your palate. Uganda has a political party menu of more than 30 registered parties. If voters knew exactly what the different parties stood for, the upcoming 2016 election results could look quite different from the past.

Only six of Uganda’s political parties have parliamentary seats. The ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) holds 254 out of 379 seats (67 per cent). Among them, the five opposition parties and the Independents account for 106 seats. Army and ex-officio members hold the remaining 19 seats. The NRM dominates Parliament by a wide margin. This will continue in 2016 and the foreseeable future unless voters have a clear reason to vote in a manner that changes the distribution.

Today, voters are hard pressed to identify the ideological positions of any of Uganda’s opposition parties with the exception of Ms Beti Kamya’s Uganda Federal Alliance (UFA). Although UFA does not have a seat in Parliament, its position is unique, clear and visibly communicated. UFA promotes federalism for the sharing of the immense political power currently in the President’s hands. Beyond that, the only easily identifiable theme among the most prominent opposition parties is their shared passion for a new regime.

As history shows, passion for a change of guard is insufficient to garner votes. Voters would like to hear solid reasons for supporting a party on the menu but very few will invest the time to unearth them. Each party should make it easy for us to understand their ideological positions by identifying those positions and consistently promoting them. Voters know that UFA is pro-federalism because all the party’s public statements are linked to that platform.

In the United States, it is clear that the Republican Party is the party of the traditional conservatives. The more liberal-minded Americans belong to the Democratic Party. The difference between each party’s positions on a variety of issues is also clear. Regarding social and human ideas, Democrats stand for community and social responsibility while Republicans support individual rights and justice. Concerning economic ideas, Democrats favour a legal minimum wage. Republicans believe the free market should set wages. American voters find it easy to determine which party to join by simply reviewing party positions.

They then join the party that best represents their interests and beliefs.
US voter party loyalty tends to be strong. When in doubt about which candidate to vote for, voters often choose the individual representing their party.
If you were to choose a Ugandan party to align yourself with today, do you have enough information to make that decision? More importantly, has any party reached out to the large number of our young first time voters? According to the 2013 World Population Review, 70 per cent of Uganda’s population is under 25 years old. That number includes millions who will cast their first vote in 2016. They will be looking for a party to support. The party that accurately identifies the issues these new voters care about and promises appealing, believable, well promoted solutions will gain a lot of ground.

We need to know what the parties stand for and how they plan to change our lives. The results the NRM delivers are visible wherever we go. This makes it relatively easier for voters to believe the NRM’s promises and vote in its favour. Opposition parties face an uphill battle because they have no concrete national achievements to point to. Instead, they must convince voters to believe they will honour the pledges they make if elected into office. The party that best articulates pledges that are both appealing and believable will woo voters to its side.

In the 2008 US presidential election race, the Democratic Party nominated a candidate who embodied the American Dream. Able to connect with both black and white Americans through his mixed racial heritage, this hard working American from a disadvantaged background made it to the White House. Barack Obama is living proof that the American Dream is within every American’s reach. Throughout his campaign, this possibility was made abundantly clear. What realistic possibilities could the opposition parties promise to put within every Ugandan’s reach?

Each political party is capable of attracting more voters. The parties must, however, choose to promote a different platform than the usual “change-the-regime.” This approach did not work in the past and will not work in the future. Instead, the parties should define and consistently promote what they stand for as well as their vision for Uganda. Help voters choose the party on the 30 item political party menu that best appeals to each of their palates. Allow us to make informed voting choices for Uganda’s future good.

Ms Tuma is a Mason Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.