What If Opposition Focused On Getting Numbers in Parliament?

Even as civil society activists and opposition politicians patted themselves on the back after last month’s successful national consultative conference on political and electoral reforms, leading opposition politicians were sceptical of the overall impact of their deliberations.

Ahead of the formulation of the ‘Citizens’ Compact,’ a document detailing the conference resolutions, which was to be handed over to Parliament, some of the country’s top opposition politicians expressed reservations on whether the government would recognise their efforts.

Three-time presidential candidate, Dr Kizza Besigye, who knows a thing or three about the difficulties of taking on the state-backed political machinery, was one of the first senior opposition figures to express his scepticism.

“It would be very ridiculous for us to think that this document will go to a Parliament which arose out of a system we are trying to stop and something comes of it,” said Besigye, the founding president of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), the country’s biggest opposition party.

On December 5, the organisers of the national consultative meeting on free and fair elections presented the Citizens’ Compact and a petition to Parliament. One of the organisers, civil society activist Godber Tumushabe, told The Observer that they intended to keep the pressure on Parliament and the executive to ensure that they adopt the proposals compiled from their consultations.

However, Dr Besigye’s misgivings are shared by other opposition politicians, including his successor at the helm of FDC, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, who believes that legislators are likely to buckle and not vouch for the electoral reforms when President Museveni reads them the “riot act”.

Even before Museveni wields any whip on legislators, his NRM holds the numerical aantage in the ninth Parliament. Out of the 375 elected MPs in the current Parliament, the NRM has 260 members – three times more than all the opposition political parties combined.

The biggest opposition party, FDC, has 36 legislators, Democratic Party (DP) has 13, and Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) has 10, while the Conservative Party (CP) and Justice Forum (Jeema) have one each.

Curiously, nearly all the opposition don’t have their party leaders in the current Parliament. Opposition party leaders who are not in Parliament include Muntu (FDC), Norbert Mao (DP), Olara Otunnu (UPC), Asuman Basalirwa (Jeema), Abed Bwanika (People’s Development Party), and Beti Olive Namisango Kamya (Uganda Federal Alliance). Only CP, led by Lubaga South MP John Ken Lukyamuzi, has its party leader in Parliament.

Several senior opposition figures such as Miria Matembe (political activist), Amanya Mushega (FDC vice president western), and Joseph Bbosa (UPC vice chairperson) did not offer themselves for elective politics in the last election and are unlikely to do so in 2016.

No party leaders

During a recent interview with The Observer, UFA leader Kamya said that with hindsight, she regretted the fact that her party does not have a single MP. She explained that in the run-up to the 2011 general elections, they sponsored 65 candidates, which amounted to spreading their resources “very thinly” and did not yield any dividends. Kamya said because UFA had limited resources, it should have focussed on getting at least one or two people to Parliament.

“We could have given that money of 65 MPs to two people and concentrated on getting somebody in Parliament because once you have representation in Parliament, your party status changes completely,” she said.

Kamya, who is considering contesting a parliamentary seat again, says without a g opposition, “Parliament is just a tool to legitimise the ruling party.”

If the outcry by Dr Besigye and Gen Muntu during the reforms conference, and indeed the comments by Kamya, are anything to go by, then a Parliament without the gest opposition voices is toothless when it comes against the overbearing influence of a powerful president like Museveni.

Without a g representation in Parliament, as Dr Besigye has himself said in the past, an opposition victory in the presidential elections would also become sterile since the NRM can frustrate most of the new president’s programmes.

Some political actors have consequently argued that the opposition needs to build its power structures from the grassroots all the way to Parliament in order to garner the critical mass that would make it more effective as a government in waiting and, later, as a government in power if it wins.

In an interview published in The Observer on Wednesday, FDC Secretary General Alice Alaso argued that the opposition party needs to develop the capacity to field candidates across the board.

“If we had 170 opposition MPs, even with President Museveni still in power, the political narrative would be fairly different,” she said. “Imagine if we had won [the presidency in] the last election but with NRM having the majority in Parliament, they would [have impeached] the president.”

No way

Although Dr Besigye participated in the reforms conference (albeit half-heartedly, going by his comments during the convention), the opposition heavyweight does not buy into the idea of taking the battle against the NRM to Parliament.

“I would not associate myself with that idea,” he told The Observer in an interview. “I don’t think that fighting for the liberation of this country from the dictatorship needs us to join Parliament because the dictatorship is not in Parliament.”

According to Dr Besigye, the governance problems that Uganda is currently facing all trace their roots to one common denominator, the continued, nearly 30-decade stay of President Museveni in power.

“There is a one-man dictatorship who is the president. We cannot say let’s leave him and occupy the other small organ (Parliament) which he controls and dominates. What can Parliament do?” he asked.

Besigye says the overbearing influence of President Museveni is evident in the fact that even where NRM MPs disagree with the ruling party, it does not make a difference because the president almost always cajoles them to his side.

The retired assistant bishop of Kampala, Dr Zac Niringiye, now a full-time political activist, shares Dr Besigye’s sentiments. Niringiye said what Ugandans are up against at the moment is “personal rule” by President Museveni, who he said does not have respect for playing by the rules.

“The nature of the Parliament of Uganda is not the most important political question [at the moment, but] transition from Museveni because he has no respect for laws. He will create laws that he wants,” he said.

Tumushabe, the associate director of the Great Lakes Institute for Strategic Studies, said whoever wants to see political reform in Uganda should add their voice to the cause in whatever platform they find convenient.

“My view is that the struggle for reform must be a multi-pronged strategy. It means that those who are active in politics should focus on the political contest in Parliament and the Local Councils. Those who are in religion should focus on mobilising their faithful to put pressure on the ruling parties and the opposition parties,” he said.

Tumushabe said Ugandans should work towards ensuring that the people they send to Parliament should be proven nationalists, from either side of the political divide, so that they put country above self and party.

“We should be interested in making sure that people go to Parliament because they hold certain values,” he said. “Those people can even contest on the NRM ticket, FDC, DP it doesn’t matter what vehicle they use to get to Parliament so long as when you get there, your first loyalty is to Uganda, not some political organisation or party leader.”

Source : The Observer

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