In the by-election victories of FDC's Paul Mwiru (Jinja East) and DP's Brenda Nabukenya (Luwero Woman), the opposition has proved that it still has the wherewithal to gain political control in areas where the ruling NRM was perceived to be the dominant force.
Mwiru defeated his closest challenger, NRM's Igeme Nabeta, by 1,700 votes, while Nabukenya's was a tightly contested affair, seeing off Rebecca Nalwanga by only 30 votes. Still, their victories had some common aspects like meticulous organisation, good mobilisation and extra vigilance on voting day. Mwiru, who was contesting for the third time, had an army of mobilisers comprising local politicians and FDC MPs. These were assigned to keep an eye on every development, taking note of certain trends--for instance, watching out for peculiar developments.
"It was tough, but I was very prepared for anything. We knew all their possible tricks," Mwiru told The Observer on Monday.
Nabukenya relied on the machinery of Uganda Young Democrats (UYD) to win. Day and night, the youth camped in the constituency and engaged in running battles with security agents. But their determination to prevent vote rigging did not waver. These results have aroused panic in NRM while handing momentum to the opposition. Things could even get worse for the former and better for the latter if by-elections are ordered in Butambala, Kagoma and Iganga municipality.
In Butambala, the incumbent, NRM's Faisal Kikulukunyu, is on shaky ground. In the 2011 elections, he defeated DP's Muwanga Kivumbi with a margin of 1,400 votes, but so much has changed. Kivumbi, a vocal critic of government, has camped in the constituency since court annulled Kikulukunyu's election, attending nearly every function, from weddings to burials. He hopes to capitalise on the poverty in the constituency to ensure victory in case a by-election is called.
In Kagoma, FDC's Dr Frank Nabwiso lost to NRM's Mbaghadi Nkayi by only 479 votes. Like Kivumbi, Nabwiso has been spending a lot of time in Kagoma since successfully petitioning court to annul the election. In Iganga municipality, FDC's Abed Mudiobole is warming up for another contest with NRM's Peter Mugema whose election court quashed.
Going by the by-elections conducted so far, the opposition's performance is much better compared to how they fared during the 8th Parliament. During the short term of the 9th Parliament, they have won three out of four by elections, wrestling Luweero Woman, Entebbe municipality and Jinja East from NRM. In the 8th Parliament, the opposition won only five - Abdul Katuntu (Bugweri), Lulume Bayiga (Buikwe South), Isha Otto (Oyam South), Betty Nambooze (Mukono North) and Jack Wamai (Mbale Municipality) - out of the 14 by-elections held.
Of these, only three (Bugweri, Buikwe South and Mukono North) were prized away from the NRM. On the other hand, the NRM won nine of the contests, reclaiming even one (Padyere) from the opposition. The opposition's poor showing was largely attributed to poor mobilisation and in some cases parties failing to agree on a single candidate. For instance, in the Kyadondo North by-election, Robert Kasule defeated DP's Regina Bakitte by 60 votes.
A simple calculation shows that if FDC's Pollyne Nakabuye, who got 1,900 votes, had allied with Bakitte, the opposition would have comfortably won the seat. The recent losses are an indicator that the NRM can no longer take their dominance for granted. Just a couple of years ago, it was unthinkable that an opposition candidate could win in a place like Luwero where President Museveni launched his five-year bush war. In the aftermath of Nalwanga's defeat, Hajji Abdul Nadduli, NRM chairman in Buganda, admitted that the party's loss reflected the people's anger toward government's failure to deliver on numerous promises.
Some defeats have been aided by infighting amongst NRM local leaders over political supremacy. For instance, in Jinja East some NRM leaders opted not to openly campaign for Nabeta. Yet this isn't the time for the opposition to celebrate. So far, they have been lucky that NRM has not exploited divisions amongst them (like in cases where they have fielded candidates against each other) to its advantage.
Secondly, the by-election wins they have recorded so far do not significantly alter the political narrative of the country (NRM remains dominant due to the numerical advantage it enjoys in Parliament and local councils). However, the victories have the hallmarks of a bigger political battle that could shape out in the run-up to the 2016 elections. Will the opposition stand strong or wither away? That is the question.