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Uganda – Opposition to President Museveni grows but Uganda’s opposition parties are in flux

Bobi Wine, musician-turned-opposition leader, punctuated his latest concert with calls for the thousands of fans attending to register for voter ID cards. This is obviously not your typical way of hyping up a crowd. But Bobi Wine’s youthful following appears as committed to his music as to his “People Power” movement and his prospective 2021 presidential bid.

Bobi Wine’s rise

The 36-year-old Wine has succeeded in capturing national—and international—attention, forming a new centre of gravity in Ugandan politics. After winning a by-election to become an Independent MP, he emerged last year as a key figure in the fight against the removal of presidential age limits, a constitutional reform eventually passed by Parliament in a bid to extent the septuagenarian President Museveni’s stay in office. This year, Wine led street protests against unpopular new taxes on mobile money transfers and social media use. He also campaigned in several parliamentary by-elections, contributing to a string of victories for his preferred candidates, many of whom started out as underdogs.

During one of these campaigns, in Arua last August, Bobi Wine was detained and tortured while in custody, causing an international outcry and driving his rising political star still higher. He had, by then, all but eclipsed the long-time opposition stalwart, Kizza Besigye, whose own preferred candidates—from his Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party—were losing to Wine’s, mostly independents or else hailing from smaller opposition parties.

Wine’s political pull was on show again in late September when former FDC party president, Mughisha Muntu, announced he was leaving FDC to lead his own “New Formation”. Muntu had worked alongside Wine in several previous by-elections, and part of the appeal of his new group was the promise of its aligning with Wine in the 2021 elections. Drawing on a division within FDC, between himself and Kizza Besigye, Muntu also brought several prominent FDC figures with him, including former party Secretary General Alice Alaso and an array of local leaders. Several FDC MPs are rumoured to be planning to join as well, but only after 2020 to avoid losing their parliamentary seat and triggering costly by-elections.

Undermining parties, or more of the same?

Taking a step back, these recent developments present something of a paradox. Even as excitement grows in some quarters about a rejuvenated, energetic opposition, opposition parties are in flux. The FDC—the largest such party—is in a very precarious position indeed. While it may well be “too early to write off FDC”, as one observer proclaimed, the party’s deputy Secretary General was less sanguine, declaring, “People Power has swallowed us.” Meanwhile, Uganda’s second-largest opposition party, the Democratic Party, may try to gain from FDC’s loss, but it has its own internal differences to manage.

Even as the main opposition parties find themselves in a tricky situation, critical observers have been quick to point out that neither Bobi Wine’s “People Power” nor Muntu’s “New Formation” have anything like a party organisation of their own. They have “rebranded” the opposition, but “Bobi Wine has not been tested to show if he has the capacity and structures to simultaneously influence numerous victories countrywide.” Muntu similarly lacks organisation at the “nuts and bolts level”.

There is another point to be made, though. As some People Power sceptics concede, Ugandan party organisation is generally weak, not only among the opposition parties but for the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) as well. Ad hoc networks of political leaders often appear more significant in shaping political organisation than do formal party structures. Notably around nominations, factional competition dominates within all the major parties, undermining their internal coherence while also blurring the boundaries between them. For instance, in the last election, some FDC candidates were seen as close to NRM leaders while NRM candidates were branded FDC-leaning. Meanwhile, the Ugandan Parliament now has more Independent MPs—most of whom previously lost their party nominations but ran anyway—than it does MPs from opposition parties.

Given the weakness of the existing party system, the politicians of all stripes now coalescing around Bobi Wine are not an aberration; their style of loose alliance is not something new. The only striking feature is the range of actors involved. As briefly noted, these include Independents and MPs from smaller parties like DP and Jeema. Some FDC are also sympathetic as are a considerable number of NRM MPs, 27 of whom have been excluded from NRM parliamentary caucus meetings after voting against the lifting of presidential age limits.

Political coordination through Parliament, not parties?

These politicians, in addition to turning out for by-election campaigns, are also using Parliament as a space from which to coordinate their actions. Of particular note is the Parliamentary Forum on Human Rights, Rule of Law and Constitutionalism, which unites a broad cross-section of MPs. It is currently organising rallies countrywide where crowds chant slogans associated with Wine and “People Power”. As the chair of the Forum assured, “We are expanding the frontlines”, campaigning in opposition-held areas but also targeting to “constituencies that have been considered no go for the opposition.”

Like Wine’s loose cross-party formation, though, this mobilisation via Parliament is not a new phenomenon; rather, it recalls the pre-2005 “no-party” period when the Young Parliamentarians’ Association (YPA) and later the Parliamentary Advocacy Forum (PAFO) were at the heart of opposition activity, and even—in the case of PAFO—contributed directly to the formation of the FDC.

Given the weakly institutionalised party system that emerged post-2005, it is not surprising that individual MPs are again seeking to coordinate via a shared platform in Parliament. It has yet to be seen how effective they will be, but the aim is as clear as it is ambitious: for the new  Forum to reach out and  create “an alliance with the masses.”

Gabon – Ruling party wins first round legislative elections under revised electoral code

Gabon held legislative and local elections on October 6, two years after the contested presidential poll of August 2016 that resulted in widespread violence. Results from the first round of the legislative elections were announced on October 13; results for the local polls, held in one round, are yet to be published. The ruling Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) has already managed to secure an absolute majority in the legislature, it appears.

Opposition leader Jean Ping, who still claims he won the presidency two years ago, called for a boycott of the elections, while other opposition parties decided to participate. Recent changes to the electoral code could have justified greater optimism with regards to the opposition’s chances, compared to the 2011 elections where the opposition only won two seats.

In accordance with the new electoral system adopted following a political dialogue process in 2017, legislative polls are now held in two rounds in single-member districts, in contrast to the previously applied multi-member majoritarian vote in one round. The number of seats has been increased from 120 to 143, but their distribution is highly skewed, as demonstrated by a close analysis of the distribution of the country’s 1.8 million population across the 143 constituencies.

In the interior of the country, in provinces known to support the PDG, a deputy in the National Assembly represents a few thousand citizens or less, while in the capital Libreville and the economic center of Port-Gentil, one elected representative represents more than 58,000 and 34,000 citizens, respectively. The distribution of seats thus favors sparsely populated rural areas that have tended to support the ruling party, while the major urban areas where opposition to President Ali Bongo is concentrated are underrepresented.

A summary analysis of the results published by the Gabonese Center for Elections (CGE) indicates that the PDG won 74 seats in the first round, while opposition parties followed far behind with only four seats, and independents won two. The three former opposition parties that decided to join Ali Bongo’s unity government following the 2017 political dialogue – the Social Democratic Party (PSD), the New Democracy (DN) and the Party for Development and Solidarity (PDS) – were particularly hard hit, winning only 1 seat among them. That seat went to the PSD in the province of Ogooué-Ivindo which is otherwise a PDG stronghold. The runoff for all remaining seats is scheduled for October 27.  

The gamble by opposition leaders who disassociated themselves from Ping and decided to participate in the elections may not have paid off directly. Former president of the National Assembly Guy Nzouba-Ndama, leader of the recently formed Democrats (Les Democrates – LD) party was eliminated in the first round by a PDG candidate; his party managed to win three seats in the first round of polling. Alexandre Barro Chambrier, leader of the Rassemblement Heritage et Modernite (RHM), heads to the second round, also running against a PDG candidate. His party won one seat in the first round, in the Moyen-Ogooué province. In a particularly surprising development according to CGE results, the Ogooué-Maritime province where Port-Gentil is located has swung from voting for the opposition in the 2016 presidential election to giving the PDG eight out of 13 seats in the first round.

Remains to be seen if opposition parties can coalesce and effectively mobilize voters behind the remaining opposition candidates in the runoff races – assuming the competition is fair. Some opposition candidates alleged voting irregularities in the first round, and there have been fraud accusations – including between the PDG and one of its allied parties, the Center of Liberal Reformers (CLR).

There are close to 30 races where an opposition candidate is on the second round ballot – from the LD, RHM and other parties – which creates an opening for a more representative legislature. It is striking to note, however, that in some opposition strongholds turnout was reportedly significantly lower than in provinces in the interior of the country, notably those that have traditionally been PDG strongholds. Thus while the average turnout in the first round was 58.6% nationally, in the Estuaire province where Libreville is located, only 28.5% of voters turned out to vote. Get-out-the-vote efforts should be a priority for candidates proceeding to the second round. In a country like Gabon with a small electorate, it is particularly true that every vote counts. 

Holiday Quiz

Thanks to everyone for visiting the site since we started in October. It’s been a busy schedule. So, we are going to take a little time off from blogging. We will be back on Monday 6 January, 2014. However, we will be posting to the Facebook page throughout the holiday period.

Between now and then we are running a holiday quiz. At the top of this page, there are pictures of presidential residences from 14 different countries. Can you name them, starting with the top line and going from left to right?

We think this is pretty difficult. So, we are going to try to arrange a small prize if anyone can name them all. If more than one person gets all of them right, then we will have a tiebreaker.

If you want to enter the quiz, then the closing date is Friday 3 January at midnight GMT. Please feel free to post your answers as a comment here or contact me directly at robert.elgie@dcu.ie.

Good luck and, if you’re having them, then happy holidays.