The recent string of by-election losses by the NRM while barely scratching the ruling party’s numerical strength in parliament, has given the opposition a sliver of hope for the future.
The loss by NRM flag bearer Alintuma Nsambu to DP secretary general Mathias Nsubuga in the hotly contested Bukoto South constituency a fortnight ago made it five out of six losses for the ruling party in the last year.
A record, which must count as the ruling party’s worst showing ever in by-elections since the return to multiparty politics in 2006.
Observers have put down the opposition’s runaway success to two factors.
The first is the general economic decline over the last 12 months, so the NRM losses count as a protest against the way the economy is being run.
Secondly and probably more importantly, is the way the opposition parties have been able to concentrate their forces in the contested constituencies, neutralizing the NRM’s presence. In general elections the opposition find themselves spread out to thin and unable to match the NRM’s nationwide presence.
In addition something has to be said for internal rivalries and wrangling within the NRM, with its succession undertones, which has made it near impossible to present a unified force to the electorate.
In the case of Bukoto South some NRM big wigs privately and in the open defied party instructions to throw their weight behind Nsambu. Some arguing that he was not a native son, an unknown quantity, while others citing his comments against Buganda kingdom that made him a hard sell in central Uganda constituency.
With Nsambu’s loss the ruling party ceded five of the 263 seats it came into the ninth parliament with, but this still leaves it eons ahead of its nearest rival the FDC which holds 43 seats.
But more importantly the NRM still has more than two thirds of the seats in the house. Despite the recent internal bickering and the discomfort of a few of its rank and file’s eargerness to tow lines independent of the party, the ruling party still has a comfortable majority that would allow it to have its way in parliament on any given day.
The losses are regrettable but unlikely to change the mathematical balance in the house.
But NRM planners will know more than anyone that, in politics when the facts come up against perception, perception wins all the time, and they will be forgiven for tearing out their hair and suffering sleepless nights in trying to work out how to stem the hemorrhage.
The recency factor – the tendency to give more prominence to recent events, is not helped by these events.
It doesn’t help too that with the presidential and parliamentary elections out of the way last year, the NRM looked every day like a house divided against itself.
The opposition can smell blood, the question is do they have the organizational capacity to take advantage of the NRM at its moment of historical weakness?
A government in waiting’s best bet of increasing or maintaining visibility is through its member’s in house – debating eloquently against government positions, harassing the front bench and generally towing a populist line against the government’s pragmatic one.
This would improve their stock in the public eye, make them look like credible alternatives to the seating government.
For lack of numbers this is a difficult agenda to push in Uganda. In fact the ferocity of the NRM “rebels” in recent months is such that they look like the de facto opposition.
Your next option would be to take to the streets, tap into any discontent and magnify it. The walk-to-work protests last year were an attempt at this. But even with this strategy superior grassroot organization is required, you don’t just start a fire and expect the public to jump in and stoke it for you, no matter how much they sympathise with your cause.
Before the polls last year opposition candidates admitted privately that no opposition party had a nationwide network to match the NRM’s, and that whereas they made the necessary noises as a group it was really a case of everyone for themselves and God for us all.
A mass uprising of the kind the opposition wished for, is predicated on a good organizational structure. The images we saw on the TV of the Arab spring were the finished product backed up with solid organisational capability the like of which our opposition are yet to marshall.
This is not to say that the series of recent opposition victories should be overlooked, even landslides start with the movement of one pebble, but it means that the opposition has to a lot more work to loosen the NRM’s stranglehold on the country’s politics.
For the NRM it will serve as a wakeup call, a sign that it can no longer be business as usual.