Opposition should learn from their mistakes

Wednesday February 23 2011

By Nicholas Young

Weak opposition

It’s hard to lose elections, especially when you’ve been out-gunned by an incumbent who takes illegitimate advantage of his position, but Uganda’s opposition parties must get over their anger and face up to their own failures.

Let me repeat that word: failures. The election outcome is not adequately explained only by Yoweri Museveni’s undoubted craftiness, webs of patronage and abuse of state funds. It needs also to be understood in the light of the opposition’s failure to inspire voters with a credible alternative.
The fractious and divided opposition ran a lacklustre campaign that sought to exploit anti-Museveni sentiment rather than offering any positive vision of Uganda’s future. This was a grave, political error, the most damning evidence of which is that fully 41 per cent of the registered electorate did not bother to cast their vote.

Many (although not all) white collar workers, managers, professionals, intellectuals, entrepreneurs of all kinds, and many in-migrating city-dwellers who are exposed to diverse information and experiences, are heartily sick of Museveni. This showed in the fact that Kampala, Uganda’s only real conurbation, where such people are concentrated, returned opposition MPs. (More, interestingly, from the Democratic Party than the supposed opposition frontrunner, the Inter-Party Cooperation)
But Kampala’s electorate is not the same as Uganda’s.

The country’s steady economic growth has been uneven, benefitting an expanding urban elite much more than the rural people who remain the overwhelming majority of the electorate. But enough wealth has trickled down to reduce absolute poverty in most areas, and prospects for the marginalised north have improved dramatically since 2006. This gave the incumbent a solid basis on which to build a campaign that emphasised stability, continuity and gradual progress to “middle income” status.

To overturn this would have required much more than reliance on historical grievances, claims that winds of change were blowing in from North Africa, and bluster about what would happen if Museveni cheated. Was such talk—or Dr Kizza Besigye’s sense of personal entitlement, believing he was robbed last time round—going to put food on anyone’s table? No.

It is true, and disgraceful, that the ruling party raided state coffers for a spending spree that the opposition could not match. But vote-buying is a transaction that takes two. If the election was “bought,” voters were complicit in the purchase.

Did the opposition do anything to challenge this political culture? No. They handed out brown envelopes too--but not so many and not so fat. And if that’s the prevailing political culture, it’s hardly surprising that people should go with the candidate who can hand out most. The opposition parties must examine these failures and change their approach if they are to prevent Museveni from settling in as a Life President on the old, African model.

Firstly, although weak in Parliament, they need to be effective as an opposition. This means engaging seriously and consistently in matters of public policy, reflecting their constituents’ concerns, scrutinising government closely and holding it to account. This is a vital role in any democracy, and it will be especially important at a time when oil revenues start to flow.

Secondly, they must work hard at the grassroots level to communicate with the public—which means listening, as well as talking—and to promote political debate that is based around local and national issues, not just around visceral party and personal loyalties.

Thirdly, putting these together, they need to spend time developing and costing coherent and credible policy alternatives to put before the electorate in 2016, in campaigns that focus on issues, not just on who gets to occupy State House.

All of that implies changing the political culture to one that respects the electorate more, rather than treating voters as poor dupes to be courted for a while every five years. This is a tall order whose difficulties should not be underestimated. But the sooner the opposition stop blaming Museveni for their predicament and buckle down to the task, the sooner their fortunes are likely to change.

Mr Young is a British writer currently based in Kampala
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