The major news coming out of a full day meeting of the four men who want the joint Opposition flag in next year’s election is that there is no news. Not yet.
When the real news comes, however, it will likely be that that the protocol of The Democratic Alliance (TDA) will have been rewritten to provide for two presidential candidates instead of the one originally envisaged.
It could even be three candidates if former vice president Gilbert Bukenya insists on running. Democratic Party (DP) president Norbert Mao, sources say, is not keen on the presidency and is eyeing a parliamentary seat.
Speaking on behalf of his fellow contestants on Friday night, Mr Mao said “we can only blame time” for the candidate’s failure to agree on who to front against President Museveni next year.
But Mr Mao soon contradicted himself, saying the candidates wanted to first “consult with their bases” before a decision was made. Herein lies much of the truth.
Our conversations with several sources close to the process indicate that the idea of having two candidates – Dr Kizza Besigye and Mr Amama Mbabazi – is taking root within TDA, even if some of the coalition’s members are still repugnantly opposed to it.
In the end, those opposed to the idea may not have much to do about it because the decision on who emerges as the joint candidate has to be arrived at by consensus, meaning that all the candidates have to agree before a decision is made.
The announcement may come on Monday when the candidates report back to the TDA summit or slightly later, but there is no doubt in the minds of some individuals close to Dr Besigye that he will be on the ballot.
“That is absolutely impossible; don’t even think about,” said one of Dr Besigye’s key confidants when asked about the possibility of Dr Besigye backing Mr Mbabazi, “Both candidates will be in the race.”
Dr Besigye’s close confidant was also sure that Mr Mbabazi will not pull out of the race “under any circumstances”.
The former prime minister has prepared for his presidential bid for years and he seems to only be waiting for nomination day, having readied everything he will need for the campaign. He is believed by many to have the keys to the cash vault that could grease the final assault on Mr Museveni.
It has also been pointed out that running against President Museveni will give Mr Mbabazi the protection he needs against possible persecution after falling out with his long-time ally.
Also, Mr Mbabazi is said to have told those he has discussed his presidential bid with that unless he challenges President Museveni next year, his political currency will depreciate.
Voices from Besigye’s camp
Had Mr Mbabazi envisaged the “stubborn” resistance that Dr Besigye and his backers have put up to fight for the TDA flag, insiders to the TDA process reckon that he wouldn’t have joined the alliance.
His late entry into the alliance, those close to Dr Besigye believe, was occasioned by a feeling that Dr Besigye would easily be shunted aside, especially that the former prime minister was buoyed by a successful tour of eastern Uganda.
This is why even Dr Besigye himself, but most loudly his backers, protested against Mr Mbabazi’s late entry. Dr Besigye said Mr Mbabazi was well aware of the timelines but he waited for the deadline to ask for extensions.
Ms Ingrid Turinawe, the FDC secretary for mobilisation and one of Dr Besigye’s key backers, wrote a minority report challenging the report of the candidates selection committee and noted, among other things, that Mr Mbabazi had been admitted irregularly after the deadline.
The report had ranked Dr Besigye below both Mr Mbabazi and Mr Mao. The TDA summit later disregarded the report, saying the committee had overstepped their mandate and arrogated to itself the powers of the summit.
Dr Besigye and his backers say there is a “deliberate campaign” against Mr Museveni’s long-time challenger, who has contested in the past three elections. One of Dr Besigye’s confidants said they had learnt of “the well-orchestrated plan to kick out Besigye in favour of Mbabazi (but) we have a counter plan and they will be shocked.”
Dr Besigye’s backers have very openly fallen out with some of the people running the secretariat, including Bishop Zac Niringiye and Mr Godber Tumushabe.
Many FDC members and other allies of Dr Besigye feel they are entitled to the TDA ticket for a number of reasons.
They say Dr Besigye has been consistently ranked the most potent Opposition figure against President Museveni, and they insist that he is still very popular. They argue that TDA should have adopted a scientific method of selecting a candidate, say by commissioning an opinion poll, in addition to organising rallies and television debates for the contestants to compete openly.
In addition, they argue, FDC organised the best process of leadership renewal and candidate selection of any party by far, entailing two successful delegates’ conferences and a 60-day nationwide campaign for the flag bearer race that pitied party president Gen Mugisha Muntu against Dr Besigye.
These views were ably echoed by the four MPs who led a group of supporters to push their leadership to withdraw the party from TDA on Thursday. The MPs are Jack Sabiiti, Amuriat Oboi, Willian Nzoghu and Odonga Otto. The group also included Mr Harold Kaija, a deputy secretary general, Mr Sadiki Amin, the secretary for defence and security, among others.
They argue that their party has made considerable progress in managing the fallout that arose when Budadiri West MP Nandala Mafabi lost the party presidency to Gen Muntu in 2012. Mr Mafabi has since been elected party secretary general.
Mr Mao’s DP, in comparison, did not seem to make much improvement from the 2010 delegates conference in Mbale at which he was first elected.
Even this time around, a faction of DP members led by Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago and Mr Samuel Lubega boycotted the delegates’ conference at Prof Bukenya’s hotel in Entebbe, citing irregularities in the grassroots elections and other processes.
The other two candidates seeking the TDA nomination – Prof Bukenya and Mr Mbabazi – only recently broke away from President Museveni. Whereas Prof Bukenya seems poised to eventually found a party, Mr Mbabazi insists on remaining as an NRM member despite challenging Mr Museveni from outside NRM.
That Mr Mbabazi says he is still NRM has rattled many in the Opposition ranks. Asked to clarify on the matter Friday evening, Mr Mbabazi passed the question to Mr Mao, who had been designated to speak for the candidates.
“In fact, it is the first question we asked him (in the candidates meeting),” Mr Mao said. He, however, did not go into the specifics of Mr Mbabazi’s answer, saying the answer was entitled in the report to the summit.
Dr Besigye seems to have read the sentiments of his party members and other backers well. At a rally in Mukono during the campaign for the FDC flag, Dr Besigye said he had returned to the fray because he could not allow the party’s work of over a decade to easily pass to Mr Mbabazi “who could mess it up.”
Here he spoke to the sentiments of many FDC faithful, and many of them are asking him to keep to that. When a group of his supporters stormed the meeting venue of the TDA summit on Thursday demanding for their party’s withdrawal from the process, Dr Besigye seemed to reaffirm the promise he made earlier.
“You handed me your flag,” he said, “that flag is safe in our hands and nobody will take it from us without our consent.” He did not elaborate.
When the candidates addressed the press Friday night, a question was asked of Dr Besigye whether he would support whoever was selected in TDA.
He answered the other aspects of the question, including whether he was a bad loser, going by the outbursts by his supporters earlier in the week when there had been indications in the media that he would lose to Mr Mbabazi.
“How can one be a bad loser before he loses? That shows you the extent of confusion. There is a deliberate propaganda campaign that has been waged against this process as a whole, to discredit it, but also against me as a person,” he said.
Dr Besigye did not say who had launched the propaganda campaign, but he has on a number of occasions decried the perception of lack of fairness and transparency within TDA. He ignored the question on whether he would support the joint candidate if he is not the one.
Two candidates a blessing in disguise?
Whereas some Opposition figures have criticised Dr Besigye over his decision to run again despite saying in the past that he would never challenge Mr Museveni again until reforms were instituted, they at the same time seem to recognise that he is still popular.
Take the case of Mr Amanya Mushega, an FDC member who backed Gen Muntu against Dr Besigye and publicly criticised Dr Besigye. One of the issues he raised against Dr Besigye was that he failed to support his successor, Gen Muntu, to root himself among FDC faithful.
Even if Dr Besigye lets Mr Mbabazi stand, therefore, he will be required to actively campaign for him. A source close to Dr Besigye told Sunday Monitor that his candidate views this reasoning in the same way he saw Gen Muntu’s supporters’ arguments.
Dr Besigye argued during his contest against Gen Muntu that support is not inherited but earned and that political capital accumulates with time, meaning that he is likely to more popular than his colleagues who had not been in political contests for as long a time as himself. He said that it should not be taken for granted that all the people who supported him would support his successor.
Dr Besigye’s backers say Mr Mbabazi’s nation-wide support remains an unknown quantity and that since the two men have different styles, they are not sure that Mr Mbabazi will command the following that Dr Besigye does.
Another view in relation to this is that the two candidates have their distinct bases of support, with Dr Besigye speaking better to the “hardcore” Opposition supporters while Mr Mbabazi would appeal more to the undecided and liberal NRM members.
Those who advance this view say having any of the candidates running and leaving out the other could alienate one of the two constituencies and lead to a low voter turn out to President Museveni’s advantage.
As the Opposition mulled the idea of a joint candidate earlier this year, Dr Paul Ssemogerere, a former leader of DP and two-time presidential candidate, suggested that having two or three candidates to challenge Mr Museveni with the view to coalescing around one in the second round would work better.
“I would propose with regard to the presidency that since one is required to score more than 50 per cent to win outright, it is easier for each party to mobilise as many voters on its own with the aim of jointly scoring more than 50 per cent and prevent the incumbent from going through at the first ballot,” Dr Ssemogerere said in an interview in Sunday Monitor on February 22.
If this analysis is correct – and many commentators have since espoused it – then the Opposition, albeit not by design, could be close to the correct formula of creating a potent challenge against Mr Museveni.