The most comprehensive poll conducted so far on how MPs are likely to vote when the Raphael Magyezi age limit amendment bill reaches that stage has found that the bill has 57.8% support.
Impressive as it appears, this percentage falls short of the two thirds (66%) majority required to push through the amendment whose suspected aim is to extend President Museveni's 31-year rule beyond 2021.
The poll, conducted by this newspaper over the last seven days, covered 297 MPs, which is about two thirds of the 436 lawmakers with voting rights.
Igara West MP Raphael Magyezi's private member's bill seeks to have Article 102(b) of the Constitution scrapped, thereby dropping the 35-75 age limits for presidential aspirants. Museveni is 73 and would not qualify to run in 2021 if Article 102(b) stands.
This reporter conducted one-on-one and phone call interviews with each MP polled, and also tracked statements made by various lawmakers during press conferences or appearances on different media platforms.
Of the sampled MPs, 171 (57.8%) said they would vote in favour of the bill, while 103 (35%) said they would vote against it. At least 22 MPs (6.8%) said they were still undecided, while one said he would abstain.
This failure to attain commanding support for the bill on the part of NRM, and the open hostility the idea met in many constituencies during the just- ended consultation process, has energised ruling party MPs who are pushing for the restoration of term limits as a trade-off.
These MPs, who include Ruhinda North's Thomas Tayebwa, are telling their colleagues that removing the age limit without restoring term limits would leave the constitution bereft of any safeguards against dictatorial rule in future.
According to Article 262 of the Constitution, at the second and third readings of the bill, NRM needs the support of not less than two-thirds of all members of parliament.
But based on our survey, the numbers in support of the bill are short by at least 17.2%, which translates to 27 MPs. The Observer's sample of 297 respondents represents two thirds of the 436 MPs with voting rights. Of this total number, NRM enjoys a sizeable majority of 301 MPs and several allied independent lawmakers.
However, the Magyezi bill is so divisive that many lawmakers are ready to break ranks for their own political survival. In the corridors of parliament, some of the 'undecided' MPs are known to have told colleagues that they might consider keeping away from the House when the bill comes up for its second and third readings, or abstain from the vote.
One such MP, Pius Wakabi (Bugahya), told us he would abstain from the vote since his people are sharply divided over the bill.
"I have four sub-counties which are sharply divided; two of them support the amendment and the other two are strongly opposed to it," Wakabi said on December 4.
While Koboko Woman MP Margaret Baba Diri doesn't intend to abstain, she is aware of the extent to which the bill is divisive in her own constituency.
"I conducted nine consultative meetings with different groups of people. The district NRM leaders overwhelmingly supported it but the local government leaders rejected it," Baba Diri said.
"I also went around all the seven sub-counties in the district, including the municipality. Three sub-counties supported it and in four, it was divided opinion but the municipality is overwhelmingly against it," the Koboko Woman MP said.
According to Baba Diri, who spoke to us on December 3, some people "are so agitated they didn't even want to listen to us."
Nevertheless, Baba Diri said she would vote for the amendment alongside her party.
The dilemma facing MPs such as Baba Diri, torn between toeing the party line and listening to their constituents, has galvanised NRM MPs who feel that restoring term limits will satisfy their consciences and reassure their supporters who are against the bill.
Others have suggested a two-year extension of the government's tenure to make it a seven rather than five-year term.
"Five years are too short because after elections you don't have time to concentrate on development programmes; most of the time is wasted politicking," said Richard Othieno Okoth (West Budama North).
The MP claimed that this idea had come from his constituents.
"The people told me during the consultations that they want the term to be extended to seven years but limited to two terms, and if this is not included in the committee report, I am going to propose it," Othieno said.
Othieno's proposal is not as farfetched as it sounds because President Museveni told the 600-member NRM National Executive Council on October 27, that a five-year presidential term is too short (See: Museveni: 5-year term is too short, The Observer, October 30).
Other MPs who indicated that their constituents favour this proposal include Fred Bwino Kyakulaga (Kigulu North), Kenneth Obote Ongalo (Kalaki), Robina Mukisa (Namayingo Woman) and Stephen Mayende Dede (Bukooli South).
"My people say that the condition for lifting the age limit should be the restoration of the two-term limit," Ongalo said on December 4.
This idea, the MPs we spoke to said, is based on a comparison with other countries in the region which have no age limits but do have term limits.
"There is a fear that removing the age limits is giving away the country. Imagine a situation where you get a wrong person after Museveni is gone; what will happen? We don't want a scenario where after removing all the safeguards, we get a dictator because we doubt whether Museveni still has 20 years ahead," said Bukooli South's Mayende Dede.
Ruhinda North MP Tayebwa said on Tuesday that he too favours restoration of term limits.
"There are many of us who believe that you can't remove all the safeguards from the constitution, [and] we want to push for the return of term limits and have it entrenched under Article 260," he said.
This proposal, Tayebwa added, was presented in writing before the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs committee, and is to be discussed in the NRM caucus before going to parliament.
"You can't open up the constitution and leave it just like that," the youthful MP said.
Asked if this wouldn't open a window for a referendum on the Magyezi bill, Tayebwa said their push is intended to bring back Article 105(2), which was deleted in 2005.
"We don't need to touch any [other] article [of the Constitution]. We are introducing a new article; the one that was removed in 2005," Tayebwa said.
However, some opposition leaders have scoffed at this proposal, saying their ruling party colleagues are desperate.
"They are trying to find a remedy to the countrywide opposition to the bill because they came back from their constituencies with red noses; that is why they are also pushing for a secret ballot because they don't want their electorate to see them voting against their voices," said Mathias Mpuuga (Masaka Municipality).