A quick peep into the Uganda electoral commission summary of the Members of 10th parliament as arranged according to party lines indicate that ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) holds a majority 293 seats, Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) 36, Democratic party 15, Uganda people’s congress (UPC) 06 and 66 independents.
The Ninth parliament (2011-2016) had the NRM 263 seats, FDC 34, DP 12, UPC 10, conservative party (CP) 01, Justice forum 01, and 43 independent seats while the eighth parliament (2006-2011), the NRM 205 seats, 37 for FDC, Uganda people’s Congress with 09, 08 for DP, one seat for conservative party and justice forum while 37 candidates won on independent tickets.
The rise of independent legislators from 36 in the eighth parliament to 66 in the 10th parliament let alone their number being more than all opposition seats combined raises the question of whether something is wrong with the party systems across the political divide. Why a candidate would chose to go independent while there are more than 30 political parties in the Country?
In 1986, when the NRM government took over power, it burned activities of all political parties from grassroots and introduced individualism, could it also be that political parties limit individual liberties to present themselves to the electorate?
Away from the general elections, In the run to 2016, Koboko North constituency had one of the fiercest battles between Mr Elly Asiku and Nusura Tiperu, a controversial party primary only led to confusions until the final voting; a similar case in Lower Madi in Arua district, Mr Ismail Ogama against Mr Ronald Afidra, Dr Sam Okuonzi against Eng Gabriel Aridru in Vurra and Mr Isaac Etuka against Mr Drito Martin in Upper Madi the list grows longer under the NRM party.
FDC had their own troubles; In the run to the general elections; Mr. Bernard Atiku, a promising young but staunch FDC member stood on independent ticket after bitter disagreements in the party.
When President Yoweri Museveni appointed Gen Kahinda Otafire as a minister after losing twice to little known Rtd Capt Dononzio Kahonda, many were left wondering what message it sent regarding party cohesion considering that Otafire had clearly gone against party principles to stand as an independent.
A careful analysis of such political trends leaves one asking a number of questions; what has happened to the much emphasized party discipline?, Is it principles or opportunities that motivate a Ugandan to join a political party?, in any case are party primaries even relevant now considering most of the “losers” still go ahead and stand as independents?
Focus on Arua municipality By-elections
Mr Swadick Angupale, a contestant in the national resistance movement (NRM) primary elections to replace assassinated Col Ibrahim Abiriga vowed never to support the declared winner.
“That election was rigged, many people went to the polls and did not find their names and they returned home annoyed” Mr Anguapale said adding “I have not joined the camp of any candidate and as chairman of NRM in the municipality; I will continue to work for the party but not for Ms Nusura”
His supporters accuse Ms Nusura of being imposed from “above”. The group warned that failure to address the party members grievances could disgrace the NRM that they say had risen to the top in the municipality in recent elections.
“We could easily see a repeat of Rukungiri and what happened in Jinja East if this is how the secretariat is conducting their elections” Mr Twaib Acile, the vice chairperson of the party youth league for northern Uganda said in reference to other elections that he thinks were not well managed by his party secretariat.
Mr Jackson Atima, another NRM contestant goes independent after expressing similar dissatisfaction over the manner of the party primaries as well as Mr Elton Nyero, despite not contesting in the primary elections claims to have personal ties with president Museveni who is the NRM party president.
Perhaps FDC has a bigger dispute to address, 2016 party flag bearer Mr Bruce Musema faces historical Mr Kassiano Wadri Ezati in what has visibly torn the party apart. Local officials sharply divided with the two, accusations and counter accusations during rallies.
“I am a founder member of FDC, I am not even beyond number 10 and a member of National executive committee (NEC), I was the deputy secretary general in charge of administration where I served for 10 years, and deputy mobilizer for Northern Uganda, So my supporters have all the reasons to put on FDC Colors” Mr Wadri asserted when asked why his supporters, despite being nominated on independent ticket, had donned FDC T- Shirts.
He accused the party headquarters of being rigid, failing to organize primary elections and the infighting of the members while speaking to reporters shortly after his nomination
Yet Mr. Jafaar Olekwa, another FDC strong man in the municipality under the same reasons advanced by the Kassiano camp also stands as an independent.
A look into other countries
The United States primary elections of Tuesday November 8th 2016 between republican and business mogul Donald Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Rodman Clinton came at the backdrop of very fierce primary elections. Mrs Clinton had secured the Democratic Party nomination after fending off strong challenge from senator Bernie Sanders while Mr Trump sailed through in a republican vote election that included Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, John Kasiach, Jeb Bush and other candidates.
On July 12, 2016, Mr. Sanders, left with no option endorsed Mrs. Clinton as the party flag bearer despite urging his supporters to “continue the revolution” because his party had decided.
According to Professor John E. Owens, in his Journal of legislative studies on cohesion and discipline in legislatures, political parties and parliamentary committees says unless assumptions are made that parties are cohesive and act as unified collectivities with reasonably well-defined goals, it is really difficult, if not impossible, to consider their electoral and legislative roles usefully.
But levels of legislative party cohesiveness are also important because they provide us with crucial information about how legislatures/ parliaments function and how they interact with executives/governments. Without cohesive (or disciplined) parties, government survival in parliamentary systems is threatened” Prof. Owens notes.
With a seemingly increasing voice of dissent, how long can Ugandan political parties hold the all-important cohesion and discipline as explained by Prof. Jones?, what effect does this have on the overall quality of debate and the country’s democracy?
Political commentators speak out
Ms Perry Aritua, the Executive director women democracy network Uganda says although the constitution gives room for independents, parties need to have internal mechanisms of receiving and resolving complaints from unhappy members. She however notes that the most important thing for a member of parliament is to represent the interest of Ugandans ahead of their party.
“We are seeing a changing trend where party interests are given priority ahead of the country’s interests and yet the party is just like a vehicle” she says
Ms Aritua says citizens should acquaint themselves with the roles of MPs and chose the most effective one who can deliver on those roles but complains that given the numbers of MPs, it’s hard to individually assess the contribution of individuals.
Retired Amb Harold Acema, a senior diplomat and veteran politician calls independent politicians Opportunists and wants a law that will bar individuals from contesting as independents
“I think all this nonsense is brought about by the commercialization of politics, how can you go to parliament to represent your own interests?” Adding “In Uganda, being an MP has become the best job, just imagine finishing senior six and you earn more money than the vice chancellor of Makerere University, than the medical surgeons in Mulago and professors?”
Asked about the effect of such trends, Mr. Acema says parliament is increasingly becoming useless and irrelevant.