At global level and more recently, sentiments of independent popular movements have handed political triumphs to politicians including Donald Trump in the US, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines with the latest being Emmanuel Macron in France.
In all instances, the victors mobilized their political support either outside traditional political parties or with little anchoring in political party structures.
The recent French dynamic offers a classic example of a wave of political organizing that transcends traditional political parties. Emmanuel Macron mobilized his support through En Marche, a new movement that beat old traditional political forms of organizing. If you want to, you can throw in Barack Obama who was largely seen as an independent-minded figure, resoundingly voted by “independent voters” in both 2008 and 2012.
There seems to be an observable trend relating to the rebirth of popular individual merit movements and the gradual death of political parties. For Uganda’s case, it may be fair enough to eulogize the rise of independents and ‘independent movements’ but we must do it within context. Uganda’s history has not furthered political parties.
First, the country has had a record of discouraging political parties and their activities. Immediately after NRM took power, it banned political parties; it did so through Legal Notice No.1 of 1986 and subsequently through the June 29, 2000 referendum on multiparty. Even when multiparty politics was reintroduced in 2005, little was done to embolden political parties as strong institutions.
The ‘Movement’ system has continued to strongly colour the political landscape in Uganda since its advent. Actually, political parties in Uganda are akin to icing sugar on a cake; they have been used to merely decorate the political topography.
The trend of events in the recent Kyadondo East constituency by-election could signal a swing (back) from institutional to purely individual merit politics. In many ways, that election made a resounding statement – there is an ‘institutional confidence crisis’.
The public seems to feel safer trusting individuals rather than institutions. While that may not necessarily be a bad thing, we need to reflect further on the implications of devolving power or responsibility from political institutions to individuals – who may not represent any form of political, social and economic organization or orientation.
The Kyadondo East by-election exemplified the trend that it is more about the capabilities and persuasions of individuals than the institutions they represent.
Ugandans seem to be losing confidence in the traditional political system(s) as well as traditional institutions of political organizing.
The gradual rise of independents bespeaks weaknesses in conventional political party organizing; but could also signal the rise of a ‘third political force’ in Uganda. This has both negative and positive implications.
Positive in the sense that any eligible person can stand for elective office without necessarily being bogged down by the complexities of running through a political party platform, but also, voters have more choices from which to choose.
This trend could, however, be negative because there may not be adequate mechanisms to hold independent candidates accountable. But also, an elected independent candidate can cross to a political party anytime without any serious repercussions – and thus denigrating their electorate.
That said, Robert Kyagulanyi a.k.a Bobi Wine ran independently against the political party establishment and did it successfully in very simple ways.
In an unprecedented way, he drew fervent enthusiasm not just in Kyadondo East constituency but also from across the country and beyond. He drove the political conversation and drew the biggest crowds that later translated into actual votes.
The experiences from Kyadondo East offer instructive guidance, especially for our fledgling political parties. It is time for them to read the times. Uganda has one of the biggest youth populations globally.
Young people today are identifying less and less with institutions, be it political or otherwise, and more with causes and their champions. The overwhelming backing of younger voters was a critical factor in Robert Kyagulanyi’s victory.
My two cents: It’s time for political parties to deeply reflect on how to posture themselves amidst very dynamic political times.
The author is the coordinator, Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda (Ccedu).
Written by: CRISPIN KAHERU
This article was published by: The Observer