The years since the end of the Cold War have seen a sustained revival of multiparty democracy in many countries.
In Uganda, after toying with the monolithic no-party “Movement System” for a decade, the victorious guerrillas of the NRA eventually succumbed to pressures to restore a system of government based on multiple political parties.
This has, however, not lessened the monopoly on power which the NRM, which is political wing of the guerrilla army, has. The political climate in Uganda is such that State institutions favour the ruling party and doesn’t allow rival parties to effectively compete for power. President Museveni’s strongman attributes has convinced Ugandans that he intends to rule for life.
Constitutional amendments now guarantee that he is indefinitely eligible to run for office. In the absence of well-organised political parties to steer the country and ensure a smooth transition to a post-Museveni Uganda, there’s danger of political instability, intolerance, crippling corruption and elections distorted by political patronage.
The future of Uganda will depend on the political struggles of political parties and other democratic forces to shape and influence the democratisation agenda. Currently, political parties cannot effectively threaten the NRM stranglehold on power. They have a cosmetic existence in a repressive political environment. Nevertheless, political parties have very important roles that make them indispensable to a democracy.
Political parties bring together people who share a common view about government. Being thus organised, they work to have their members elected to government positions in order to participate in and influence the policy decisions of government.
Political parties keep and hold true to a set of core beliefs. This allows voters to understand the basic beliefs of a candidate who runs for election under the banner of a particular party otherwise voters would be overwhelmed when faced with a field of several dozen candidates.
Political parties streamline the choice for voters. Based on clear identification with a party, voters can know for sure what set of beliefs a candidate embodies. By carrying out candidate selection processes, the number of candidates on the ballot are reduced. Thus voters can investigate the policies and beliefs of the candidates because of their reduced number.
Political parties offer a number of support services to candidates. They raise funds, distribute campaign literature and mobilise people to register to vote and on election day actually get them to go and vote. They also guide voters by publicising the party’s beliefs and policy position on important issues. In this way, the voters determine which party and candidate best matches their individual beliefs and policy preferences.
Having a handful of parties regularly competing for power keeps a sense of balance of power in government. Parties maintain a broad set of beliefs that citizens can identify with. This insulates the country from disintegrating into multiple fringe organisations, each promoting its narrow interest.
Political parties keep an eye on the activities of government and also on each other. Opposition parties are expected to be a watchdog and to present an opposing view to the ruling party. This allows citizens to be informed on both sides of a particular issue.
Sometimes the negativity can be overwhelming as the Opposition parties spend most of their time arguing against the policies of the government but this actually helps the people to be informed about what the government is doing. The information that filters through the endless arguing helps the people make decisions, especially at election time.
Political parties usually have more supporters than actual members. The majority of citizens actually don’t subscribe to any political party. They tend to vote for different parties in each election cycle or even in the same election. They may vote for a candidate from one party for president and from another party for Member of Parliament or local council. This forces parties to avoid taking extreme viewpoints in order to attract moderate voters.