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Vol 61 No 19

Published 24th September 2020


Watering down the wine

The failure of oppositionists Bobi Wine and Kizza Besigye to agree an alliance boosts President Museveni's electoral chances

The country's opposition parties are divided over tactics and local rivalries ahead of national elections next year. The hopes that the political sensation Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, could rally a national alliance against President Yoweri Museveni have been thwarted by political differences.

Although the elections due between 10 January and 8 February would have provided a stern test for Museveni's National Resistance Movement government, weakened by the economic downturn and charges of corruption, a divided opposition will have little chance of victory.

A further complication is that the electoral commission is restricting campaign rallies, citing public health requirements due to the coronavirus pandemic. It told opposition parties to use local media for their campaigns but broadcast media is heavily controlled and oppositionists say security agencies bar them from appearing on political shows.

Social media, which the government has tried to disrupt in the past, will be a critical arena in this election, especially for the under-25s who make up 77% of the population. It is from the younger generation that Bobi Wine draws his strongest support.

Kizza Besigye, who has challenged President Yoweri Museveni in four presidential elections, says he will not run next year. Besigye and Bobi Wine have a formal alliance but it has little practical effect as their supporters still see themselves as rivals.

The veteran oppositionist, although friendly with Bobi Wine, is keeping his options open and favours a mass street protest campaign against Museveni. Other leaders who have long campaigned against Museveni can't bring themselves to throw their lot in with Bobi Wine.

Besigye says he will focus on stepping up his activism in an effort to 'turn all Ugandans into fighters' so the people can recapture power from Museveni's 'military government'. His argument is that Ugandans cannot remove President Museveni through the ballot box so long as he controls the electoral commission, the police and military, and the country's coffers.

Ruling party politicians regularly defy the electoral commission's ban on public assemblies, holding rallies and processions, while opposition gatherings are suppressed by the police.

Besigye believes President Museveni must be forced out by massive street protests like the 'Walk to Work' protests he organised in the aftermath of the 2011 elections over rising fuel and food prices (AC Vol 52 No 9, Opposition works the walk). Those protests started in Kampala before quickly spreading across the country until they were crushed by the military. Those protests were probably the closest any politician has got to threatening Museveni's hold onto power.

However, Bobi Wine believes he can reproduce on a national scale his stunning by-election victory in Kyadondo East in 2017, which he took with 78% of the vote. The hope is that so many votes would be mobilised that the NRM's normal mechanisms for fixing the vote in President Museveni's favour would be overwhelmed.

Besigye and Bobi Wine recently held a press conference renewing their alliance but they are on different courses and so risk splitting the anti-Museveni vote.

Their strategic differences became clear when Bobi Wine burst onto the national political scene. While Bobi Wine mobilised Ugandans to register for National Identity Cards so that they could vote, Besigye said planning to overthrow Museveni through elections was futile (AC Vol 60 No 23, Unity or bust for 2021).

What started as a mild disagreement soon escalated into a full-blown rivalry with Bobi Wine and Besigye supporters attacking each other. Bobi Wine expressed disappointment in Besigye, who stood on the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) ticket in four elections – 2001, 2006, 2011, and 2016 – and lost all rounds and only now has pronounced them a waste of time. It did not help that Besigye had in 2013 and 2014 claimed that he would not participate in the elections only to end up doing so in 2016.

Pressure is mounting again ahead of the 2021 elections with many calling on Besigye to make way for the younger man and his People Power movement.

A poll by Research World International (RWI) recently indicated that if elections were held in March, 46% of voters would pick President Museveni, Bobi Wine would come second with 22%, and Besigye third with 17%. Most of those polled also said Bobi Wine had a better chance of beating Museveni than Besigye. In spite of his dismissal of electoral politics, Besigye has challenged the accuracy of the opinion poll.

Besigye took 35% of the vote in 2016, which makes the possibility of Bobi Wine winning not that remote. He is a practising Catholic, which is the biggest church in Uganda, is a member of the largest ethnic group, the Baganda, and is popular with young people, being only 38 himself and a pop star. 

These are huge advantages he has already exploited not only in winning the by-election but in leading a key protest against the government's social media tax and against the removal of the age limit for presidential candidates (AC Vol 59 No 18, Wave of protests rattles Museveni). He has also campaigned for opposition politicians standing in by-elections in spite of the dangers. He has been severely beaten in detention and his driver was shot dead by security forces.

Besigye is not the only established opposition politician who has had to face the Bobi Wine challenge. Norbert Mao, the leader of the Democratic Party (DP) and Maj. Gen. Mugisha Muntu, the leader of the newly established Agency for National Transformation (ANT), which broke away from the FDC, have aggressively courted him but without luck.

Bobi Wine still operates under the banner of the People Power movement, which is not a political party. He wants to be a home for all change-seeking Ugandans, be it those in the ruling party or in the opposition. He has had strong influence on by-elections, often opposing FDC candidates as well as NRM ones, earning a reputation as a kingmaker.

He wants as broad a coalition as possible to back him for the presidency and has called on all those who have tried and failed to depose Museveni to rally round. In July, he unveiled the National Unity Platform, a registered party intended to navigate legal issues that could arise from People Power not being a formal party.

Within weeks of unveiling the NUP, 21 legislators – 16 from the DP, two from the NRM and three independents – signed up. Meanwhile, the FDC has lost four legislators including a former leader of the opposition, to Muntu's ANT. The FDC has two contenders for its presidential nomination, the current party president Patrick Amuriat Oboi and the party chairman Wasswa Birigwa.

Besigye is thus leaving his options open. He could state that he must, out of loyalty, back the candidate the FDC picks and cite that as a reason for not backing Bobi Wine. FDC insiders, jealous of Bobi Wine's success, hope that the ruling party will crush his election campaign, leaving Besigye's credentials as the main opposition figure intact. (Besigye believes that he really won the elections he stood in and was cheated by the election authorities, which is why he claims to be undefeated.)

Meanwhile, the NRM has been consolidating. While it has not bribed key supporters of NUP to join its ranks, it has reconciled with a group of legislators that have long acted as an awkward squad in parliament. The NRM is well versed in the tactics of bribing or co-opting its political enemies and routinely uses the resources of the state to its advantage.

One recent NRM gambit was to hold elections for representatives of special interest groups, such as the youth, the elderly, and persons with disabilities, at village level. According to pro-government media, the NRM took 79% of the positions, independents 15% and opposition parties only 6% of the leadership positions. President Museveni's handlers have jumped on these results to claim that they portend heavy defeat for the opposition at the national election, especially the NUP.

These results showed the need for efficient national party organisation from the grass roots upwards, something at which the NRM has long excelled and which has posed major challenges to Besigye.

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