Strong parties are a necessary evil for stability

Deus Mukalazi

President Museveni’s dislike for political parties is not a secret. He banned political parties in 1986 and only allowed to have them back after failing to contain the dissent in his Movement system, to “let them go.” 

Political parties are associations formally organised with the explicit and declared purpose of acquiring and or maintaining legal control, over the personnel and the policy of government. In Uganda, multipartism is the recognised system of governance and parties are supported from state funds. 

If well-harnessed, the multiparty political system has great potential to bring about political stability, accommodate diverse interests and accelerate social development. While some African leaders would want to dismiss multiparty politics as merely suitable for the industrialised West or as fiats for liberal orthodoxy, multipartyism can be part of the solution to political chaos that generally characterizes several African states, Uganda inclusive.

Whether or not they win control of the government, political parties participate in governance. The losing party plays a vital role in the overall governance of the nation. 

In multiparty democracy, the dominant party is always determined to retain power at all costs. In this kind of scenario, can parties have a chance of influencing the course of democratisation in a country? The answer is yes but it depends on the strength of different political parties in a country.

There are more than 26 registered political parties in Uganda. However, many of these political parties are either too small in terms of total membership to have any electoral effect, or are registered in the books but moribund. The number of registered political parties, therefore, is better considered as an indicator of how permissive the political environment is in allowing the registration of parties than as an indicator of the effectiveness of the party regime.

Political parties are are essential for the organisation of the modern democratic policy and are crucial for the expression and manifestation for political pluralism. In a liberal democracy, political parties perform the function of integrating individuals and groups in society into the political system. 

Parties help make the government accountable for its actions. 

They help the Opposition effectively challenge the incumbent government. 

Opposition movements without parties tend to be fragile, fragmented and incoherent, with limited capacity. Parties help politicians overcome coordination problems by creating time horizons. Politicians are self-interested and have very little motivation to think long term. Since parties have long term goals and have a broader spectrum of priorities, parties help politicians solve these coordination problems. They help politicians act in a collective manner by shaping their priorities and disciplining politicians for the goals of the parties. 

The capacity and effectiveness of party systems are strongly conditioned by the degree of political liberty and tolerance in a country. Political parties and movements are essential because they anchor and deepen democracy and foster domestic accountability. 

It is, therefore, ironical that someone can be interested in peace, political stability and development of Uganda in the 21st Century and still cast political parties as terrorist organisations. We should instead focus on supporting enough political parties to flourish so that people get accustomed to ideologically fighting through these spaces instead of resorting to violence and physical confrontation. All efforts necessary to have strong political parties including government funding as per the Constitution should be put in place and demonisation of parties should stop. Political parties too should endeavour to strengthen their internal democratic governance. 

Mr Deus Mukalazi is a research associate, Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies.


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