Besigye’s popularity remains high and of the two million new voters at the last election, three out of every four, voted for him and only one for Mr Museveni
Gen Mugisha Muntu’s defeat by Patrick Oboi Amuriat, a less-known former MP and preferred candidate of a faction loyal to four-time presidential candidate Kizza Besigye, has left open wounds and fears of a split in the opposition FDC party.
It says a lot about the absence of meaningful competition in Ugandan political parties that a leadership contest – and one that offers sharp relief between divergent views – is seen as an existential crisis, not an opportunity.
The fall out from FDC’s attempt to develop a culture of internal competition, held up side-by-side against, say, the NRM, which has never had a meaningful leadership contest since its founding, is a classic case of good deeds being punished.
Besigye’s popularity remains high and of the two million new voters at the last election, three out of every four, voted for him and only one for Mr Museveni.
Yet, for all its goodwill and support, the party has been unable to win a presidential election or prove claims of fraud in court or enforce the will of “the people” on the streets. Its share of parliamentary seats has shrunk from 12 per cent in 2006 to eight per cent. Attempts at civil disobedience – from Walk-to-Work in 2011 to swearing in a rival government last year – have been dramatic yet ineffectual.
Angry and frustrated, officials and supporters risk subordinating logic to instinct, emotion to rational decision-making. Wounded, brutalised and marooned on desolate wind-swept islands, with the shores of victory invisible in the fog of teargas, cannibalistic instincts are beginning to kick in.
It is tempting, as appears to be happening, for FDC to turn this into cult warfare by juxtaposing the popularity of individual leaders against the party’s ineffectual attempts to win power.
But the two ingredients – a popular leader and the structures to get them elected and allow them to govern – are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, NRM retains power by offering just that, albeit in a predatory manner, and with seriously flawed aspects.
This raises the danger of the goal – attaining State power, whether by defiance or by compliance – becoming an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end; a better governed country.
As tempting as this short-cut might be after more than a decade of trying, FDC needs to go the long way round. The manner in which power is obtained determines the ensuing manner and quality of governance: A government that comes to power by defiance is likely to have a sense of entitlement and reproduce the errors of the old guard; one that merely complies, if it somehow manages to take power, will merely maintain the status quo.
FDC has shown that it can change leaders internally; now it needs to show that it can remain committed to a cause, and can govern. Three quick examples:
First, the party must build its presence in local governments, by winning more districts. It is easier to be entrusted with a country if you can prove that you can competently manage districts.
Second, the party needs to convert its popularity into more parliamentary seats in order to influence public policy outside the electoral cycles. To do so, it would have to win more of the 15 per cent ‘independent’ seats (up from 12 per cent in 2006), more women seats (its share is down to six per cent from 14 per cent in 2006 against NRM’s 75 per cent) and win its first special interest seat or get rid of them altogether.
Third, the party needs to constantly show its policy alternatives and how it would be different in government. What is its policy on Burundi? On GMOs?
How would it invest in infrastructure while keeping public debt in check? Will it cut taxes to spur consumption or close loopholes? Higher salaries or lower cost of services? How would increase the savings rate and fix the public pension black hole?
Most importantly, the party must clarify, especially to itself, whether the country can be fixed incrementally or must be remade fundamentally. Can knee-deep managerial improvements improve bureaucratic processes and outcomes or do we need to wade in neck-deep and drain the swamp?
FDC, like the country it says it wants to save, is in hospital: It can stay with its illness and live in misery, undergo successful treatment and have a long life, or administer medicine that kills the patient. Only time will tell if this patient defies or complies with the treatment.
Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. firstname.lastname@example.org