The Observer (Kampala)

25 November 2012

Uganda: End of Besigye?

Gen Muntu's victory is 'bad' for Col Besigye, because some FDC leaders want the colonel out altogether; but others fear Muntu may not marshal grassroots support for the party as Besigye has done

After a tough contest, a close result, and an almost complete split in the party, Col Kizza Besigye was replaced at the top of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change party. The grim reality is that the spotlight will now shine on his successor, Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu. But will that consign the colonel to oblivion? It's too early to tell.

Will Col Kizza Besigye run in 2016? Well, he has said before that he can't rule himself out of future elections. That will most likely set the stage for a dream contest between him and newly-elected President Muntu to choose a presidential candidate that would lead the opposition party into the 2016 contest against NRM.

The contest and ultimate election would boil over to a simple, essential point; who of the two would be more relevant to the party and would still have lots of political capital to spend in 2016?

Two years into his party presidency, Muntu may be more relevant than ever, be a subject of fresh and contentious speculation, his reputation as a president may soar to new heights especially if he manages to turn the party around. And that may not portend well for Besigye. For starters, a third Muntu - Besigye duel could seriously damage the party. And a Besigye defeat would all but consign him to political oblivion.

The FDC constitution is quite flexible; it leaves plenty of room for an expansive contest. It stipulates that the party president may not necessarily be its presidential flag bearer, opening the way for Besigye or any party card-holder to contest as a party flag bearer. Besigye, has hinted severally that he could stand in 2016, the latest being in an interview with Saturday Monitor.

"I cannot rule out myself from future elections. In 2016, if my party says I should stand as presidential candidate, I will not withhold serving them and Uganda as a country," Besigye said.

Should Besigye opt to stand in 2015 for the position of flag bearer, it will test the allegiance of a number of officials and delegates, particularly those that passionately supported Muntu in this campaign and any that he will win over during his two-year presidency. On the one hand, many officials immensely respect Besigye and admire him for his resilience.

Love or hate him, Besigye remains hugely popular in the party, particularly among those who are enchanted by his militant approach. He has used his charisma to build FDC into the biggest opposition party in the country, and therefore cannot simply be wished away.

However, some analysts - and even party officials - argue that given Besigye's poor electoral record (of three defeats in the last three elections), now is the perfect time to give another person a chance and Muntu fits the bill. Aaron Mukwaya, a senior lecturer in the department of political science at Makerere University, told The Observer that under the present circumstances, a Muntu candidacy would offer better mileage to FDC.

"Muntu, like you have seen, has the ability to attract a wide spectrum of supporters even from other parties. He is firm but calm and I think he is a better alternative to Besigye and will give FDC a fresh look," Mukwaya said.

Complicated game plan:

Although 2016 appears far off, the complication of having Besigye and Muntu contesting as party flag bearer has led some party enthusiasts to start scratching their heads as they work out the strong and weak points the candidacy of either candidate would present.

According to one party official who has previously campaigned for Besigye, the retired colonel has been given enough chances to prove his worth and on all occasions he has failed to deliver. The same official also said the public would negatively perceive another Besigye candidacy.

"Besigye's brand maintains the support of his militant supporters but he does not have a new creative strategy. What new things will he tell the people?" queried the official, who, like others interviewed for this article, requested anonymity so that he could speak freely.

The official, who has worked as a strategist for the party before, said Besigye boxed himself into a corner when he told a party meeting after the election last week that it would be meaningless to participate in an election if meaningful electoral reforms were not undertaken. The key reform, which is unlikely to be implemented, is for the commissioners of the Electoral Commission to be appointed by an independent judicial body and not by the president.

The official said Besigye had hoped that by intensifying anti-government demonstrations, donors would put pressure on Museveni to institute the reforms. This being unlikely, it therefore means that if Besigye opted to stand, he would have gone against his word. Nonetheless, the official said Besigye's candidacy would be viable if Museveni opts not to stand as the NRM candidate in 2016.

Another official said Besigye's failure to eat into President Museveni's support in Western Uganda is his major undoing. This official believes that if Besigye or any other leader can get a sizeable chunk of votes in the West, this would have a ripple effect in other regions.

During the 2006 presidential election, Museveni got 81% of votes in western Uganda, compared to Besigye's 19 % while in the 2011 election; Museveni's margin in the West reduced to 76% and Besigye's improved marginally to 24%.

The official believes Muntu has the credentials to alter the electoral map in Western Uganda.

"There are people in western Uganda who are tired of Museveni but who fear that Besigye [if elected president] would revenge for being mistreated. They do not want this retribution and some of them, especially the elites, think Muntu is the perfect compromise and represents the opportunity for a smooth transition," the official said.

NRM ponders:

Already Muntu's victory has put the NRM on the alert with many insiders fearing that the former army commander may give the NRM a run for its money in the 2016 elections, if he is elected the party flag bearer. Wilfred Niwagaba, the Ndorwa East lawmaker, says Muntu's election means a lot for the NRM party.

"He is disciplined and highly respected both in the opposition and NRM," Niwagaba said.

Ofwono Opondo, the NRM deputy spokesperson, said Muntu's election had altered the political landscape of the country.

"He is likely to change the direction of FDC from the militant, confrontational, disruptive and violent politics of Besigye to a more organized and focused party which Ugandans want," Opondo said on Capital Gang, talk show on Saturday.

In the past (in 2009 and 2010) when the two have competed for the party presidency, Besigye has resoundingly beaten Muntu. It is imperative to note that in both instances, Besigye went into the election as the incumbent and, therefore, in better position to influence proceedings.

Two years later, the political dynamics have since changed and Muntu's political star appears to be on the rise. Yet doubts about Muntu's mobilisation skills remain and his ability to successfully rally other parts of the country to support him, like Besigye has done.

Richard Todwong, the minister without Portfolio, believes that Muntu will struggle to sell FDC to the public.

"Yes, Muntu is more decent than the street engagement of Dr Besigye but he can't even change a sub-county from NRM to FDC," said Todwong, who represents Nwoya county in Parliament.

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