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.”

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