By Gaaki Kigambo
As the campaigns in the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) to elect its president gather pace, tensions and mudslinging that tend to characterise its internal elections have already taken foreground, calling into question whether Uganda's largest opposition party is paying an unnecessarily too high a price to prove its democratic credentials.
A joint press conference by all the five contestants called on August 21 to emphasise civility during the campaigns easily got upturned into a campaign platform. Each of the candidates used their time to market themselves -- mostly by aiming barbs at others.
Underlying the attacks is the party's main fault line, which is: The choice strategy that should form its core identity and guide its steps to power.
On the one hand is the calm and cautious approach preferred by the current leader Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu, who is seeking re-election for his second and last term. It emphasises, among other things, the establishment of structures and offices from the grassroots, increasing the number of electoral candidates and agents in general elections, and an open, transparent and tolerant deliberative environment within the party.
On the other is fulltime activism or defiance advocated by Patrick Oboi Amuriat, Mr Muntu's most formidable challenger out of all the five contestants. It emphasises civil disobedience, open confrontation with the government and any other ways of delegitimising it apart from taking up arms.
Defiance was FDC's rallying cry in last year's general election. The party insists it won the elections through non-compliance and its victory must be reclaimed through robust activism that is not possible until the party is aligned to it.
According to Mr Amuriat, disagreement over strategy on how to move the party forward is one of the four major challenges FDC has grappled with over the past five years of Muntu's leadership.
It explains the other three: Division among party leaders and supporters; lack of focus and commitment; increased resignation and desertions by both leaders and supporters.
Defiance vs Diplomacy
While Muntu has shown general accommodation for defiance (he claims to have chaired, led and funded planning/activities of the so-called defiance campaign), he has blocked it from defining the party's identity.
For instance, its chief architect and advocate Dr Kizza Besigye, Muntu's predecessor, has not been allowed to organise and promote it using party facilities such as its headquarters -- a decision that has angered his followers like Amuriat who want to see the FDC agenda refocused to defiance.
"What FDC is doing is a good thing to experiment with a fully-fledged internal democracy. In a way it challenges the ruling NRM, which prefers to select its leaders," said Dr Sabiiti Makara, an associate professor of political science at Makerere University.
"But the model appears overstretched because first they need resources to organise, which they don't have. It also stirs up tensions that are unnecessary and keeps the party feuding, which weakens it."
The ongoing elections are the sixth in total (three for the party leadership and three for its presidential candidate) the FDC has held in the 12 years of its existence. This number is equal to what the whole country has conducted in the three decades since the ruling National Resistance Movement first shot its way to power.
The 36-year-old ruling NRM has had zero internal elections in all its life, a point Muntu was quick to remind Frank Tumwebaze, the Minister of ICT and National Guidance.
On Twitter, Mr Tumwebaze had castigated the FDC for intolerance, and accused it of choosing the politics of anger and emotions over ideas. He was responding to Muntu's caution that the FDC should not choose defiance as a permanent party identity.
"We cannot fight a dictatorship externally by stifling debate and disagreement internally," said Muntu in one of his social media tailored campaign messages.
"No one can give you what they don't have. And so in FDC, we are focused on building an internal democracy that we will practise when we take over government," adds another message.
The current contest for the FDC leadership is a dress rehearsal for the presidential flag bearer contest that is not due until 2020. Yet strategies for it are already underway and embedded in the current exercise.
By openly identifying with defiance, Amuriat confirmed prior speculation that he was a decoy for Mr Besigye, who has not yet ruled out running for Uganda's presidency for the fifth time.
Two other candidates, Mubarak Munyagwa and Moses Byamugisha, are also close Besigye associates. Sources inside the party suggest they have been deployed to mobilise the Muslim and youth constituencies respectively.
"However democratic and open we are, a man like Munyagwa has been in FDC for not even two years. Do you expect the delegates to find him as more qualified to lead than the others who have been with the party since it begun?" said a member close to the top leadership. "It's just their strategy to first splinter and hopefully rally behind one. I don't really know if it can work for them but let's wait and see."
According to Makara, the FDC mechanism where the party president does not become an automatic flag bearer as is the case with other political parties is an unnecessary source of unending headache. It creates room for cliques and intrigue as different people work towards different interests.
"For all the advantages they speak for it I think they will need to rethink that provision within the constitution or it will continue causing them trouble and which sucks up their energies that they should be channelling elsewhere," he advised.
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