After weeks of canvassing local constituents' opinion in the face of growing stiff countrywide opposition to the proposed amendment of the Constitution to remove presidential age limits, NRM strategists cannot say they have tied down the numbers the ruling party needs.
The 10th Parliament has at least 454 MPs (including 18 ministers who are non-voting ex-officio members). Under Article 262 of the Constitution, two-thirds of MPs with voting rights must be present in parliament at all the three stages provided for in the House rules to get the much-needed nod of approval.
But NRM caucus spokesperson, Margaret Muhanga, suggested to The Observer in an interview a few days ago that although the party has received promises of support from at least 320 MPs, nothing can be taken for granted.
"It is the opposition that is disorganizing us; they're getting a lot of money from NGOs to disorganize our camp," Muhanga said.
Asked which NGO in particular, Muhanga said, "I can't tell you the names but some of them have been raided by the police and had their accounts frozen."
Two thirds of 436 MPs remaining after discounting the non-voting 18 ex-officio members, brings the minimum required number to about 290. Within the president's party, despite its overwhelming 302 majority, things remain very fluid.
So far, there are 14 National Resistance Movement (NRM) MPs considered to be 'rebels' who will likely vote against the age limit removal bill. And no one can say with certainty, which way the 66 independent members, even the 35 affiliated to NRM, will jump.
It is expected that Forum for Democratic Change's 36 and Democratic Party's 15 will vote against. The other opposition party with representation in parliament, Uganda Peoples Congress (UPC), appears split down the middle of its six members.
With widespread reports of regime MPs being attacked and directed by their constituents to oppose the age limit bill, the possibility is that an unknown number could vote according to those demands although that is not guaranteed either.
Surprise abstentions cannot be ruled out either. During the 2005 vote to remove the presidential term limits, Col Fred Bogere shocked his Army Commander Gen Aronda Nyakayirima when he abstained.
There are also suspicions that despite cabinet's public show of unanimity, some ministers remain undecided -- torn between backing President Museveni and their constituents' unvarnished hostility towards any attempt to help him remain in State House for life.
Reports of ruling party MPs wavering in the face of public pressure marked a new milestone on Thursday, October 19 in Kayunga.
State minister for ICT Idah Nantaba declared that she will vote against Igara West MP Raphael Magyezi's private member's age limit bill, which seeks to remove the 35-year lower and 75-year upper age limits for presidential candidates from the constitution.
Nantaba (also Kayunga woman MP) is the first cabinet member to go public with her opposition to the Magyezi proposal.
In Mbale, Mbale Woman MP Connie Nakayenze Galiwango, wife of NRM secretariat's director of Finance and Administration, Hassan Galiwango, has indicated that she will respect the views of the people who sent her to parliament against the position that she held before. She was told to vote against.
Nakayenze's predicament is the same as Busujju MP David Lukyamuzi Kalwanga who was forced to make a public apology to his constituents on October 19, during a press conference in the Members lounge of parliament.
He enthusiastically announced his defection to the opposing side. Prior to this, Kalwanga had been involved in NRM meetings; the most recent being at Enro hotel in Mityana, where he joined MPs Godfrey Kiwanda Ssuubi (Mityana North), Henry Makumbi (Mityana South) and Judith Nabakooba (Mityana Woman) to surreptitiously secure a resolution tying the district to the amendment.
The backlash from his constituency got Kalwanga to change course.
"There is no way I can support the amendment when my constituents have indicated that they don't support it. From the consultations I have held, it is evident that the people of Busujju are overwhelmingly opposed to the lifting of the age limit," Kalwanga said.
He later joined NRM 'rebels' Theodore Ssekikubo (Lwemiyaga), Patrick Nsamba Oshabe (Kassanda North), John Baptist Nambeshe (Manjiya), Sam Lyomoki (Workers) and James Kaberuka (Kinkiizi West) to cut a cake to celebrate his defection.
According to Article 262 of the constitution, the government needs at least 290 MPs physically present in the House to vote during the second and third reading of the Magyezi bill.
However, as it stands, the camp pushing for the amendment is not sure of how many MPs are on its side. Muhanga (Burahya) said on October 19 that they had directly spoken to 320 MPs who promised to support the bill.
"NRM has 302 MPs; we would have been 303 but the Igara East MP [Andrew Martial] was removed by the court [following an election petition]. Of the 302, there are about 14 MPs who have refused [to vote with us] but don't forget that we also have 35 NRM-leaning independents," Muhanga said.
There is, however, no evidence to show that all the 35 NRM-leaning independents will automatically vote for the bill.
Sources say about 15 independents remain uncertain. But promoters of the bill hope to close the deficit their uncertainty presents with the 10 army MPs and some UPC members.
The UPC has six MPs of whom, Lands, Housing and Urban Development minister Betty Amongi (Oyam South); her husband Jimmy Akena (Lira Municipality) and Maxwell Okora (Maruzi) are expected to vote for the bill.
On the other hand, Joy Atim Ongom (Lira Woman), Santa Alum (Oyam Woman) and Jonathan Odur (Erute North) have identified themselves with the group opposed to the amendment.
According to Muhanga, the government side wants to tie down 330 MPs on its side.
Besides Ssekikubo and Buyaga West MP Barnabas Tinkasiimire, the original 'rebel' MPs, the ruling party has also lost Monicah Amoding (Kumi Woman), Patrick Oshabe Nsamba (Kassanda North), Felix Okot Ogong (Dokolo South), Dr Sam Lyomoki (Workers), Mbwatekamwa Gafa (Kasambya), John Baptist Nambeshe (Manjiya) and Alex Ruhunda (Fort Portal Municipality).
Others are Sylvia Rwabogo (Kabarole Woman), James Acidri (Maracha East), James Kaberuka (Kinkiizi West) and Sylvia Akello (Otuke Woman).
Ssekikubo said last week there are more NRM members opposed to the removal of age limits. He put the number at 20.
Some NRM officials at parliament agreed with Ssekikubo's claim.
"There are those that we hear making funny statements and I wouldn't be surprised if they too denounced the cause like Kalwanga did. By the way, Kalwanga didn't come as a surprise to me, I was expecting it," an NRM boss, who preferred not to be named, said on October 20.
"The other person I'm expecting to leave us soon is [an MP from Rubanda]; these are people we sit with and you hear their views and judge," the official added.
In an interview published by The Observer last week, one of the key architects of the bill, Kassanda South MP Simeo Nsubuga, admitted things aren't straightforward.
"I have to admit that it is not an easy task to raise the number but we have to because this is sort of like an electoral college which requires us to do a lot of kakuyege (lobbying) to raise the numbers," Nsubuga said in the interview.
MPs opposed to the amendment continue to work at denying the government side the mandatory two-thirds majority.
"Our target is having 120 MPs on our side but even if we get 115, that will be good enough because then, they'll be lacking the quorum," Oshabe said on October 20.
To Oshabe, at the moment, it is too early to gauge where they stand given that a number of MPs are still holed up in their constituencies 'consulting the people'.
"The opposition to the amendment in the constituencies scared the state so much that they thought of helping the MPs to raise support for the bill but if the trend continues the way it is, they may not get the numbers," Oshabe said.