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Regime and Party Politics in Uganda

July 27, 2010

Uganda is a relatively benevolent, quasi-authoritarian system.  Multiparty politics were introduced for the 2006 election, and democratic elections have been held since the early 1990s.  The media are free and boisterous.  Economic growth has been very good for the past decade.  Ethnic politics are subsumed into the party system, though present just beneath the surface.

But politics are dominated by the leader since 1986, the president Yoweri Museveni, and his party the National Resistance Movement.  Museveni’s regime operated a so-called “no-party system” from 1986 to 2006, which in practice meant that the Movement took the role of the single party in a single-party state.  The Movement recruited far and wide, into the villages, across ethnic groups, in the cities; it has a truly national character and national presence.

Museveni was a national savior after 20 plus years of instability, coups, mass killings, and civil war during the Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and Obote (again) regimes.  When Museveni won the civil war (a bush insurgency) in 1986, the infrastructure of the state—police, army, bureaucracy, roads, bridges, electrical and telecommunications grids—were derelict if they even remained.  The rapid and successful reconstitution of the Ugandan state since 1986 is a minor miracle.

Rubongoya (2008) argues, I think persuasively, that Museveni’s regime relied on his reputation as a charismatic war leader, and on the rapid success of the rebuilding of the state and economy, for its political hegemony from 1986 to the late 1990s.  While not precisely democratic since it restricted party competition (among other things), the regime nonetheless ruled by some form of popular consent, given the widespread support the regime and its program enjoyed.  However, once the regime resurrected the state and the economy, achieving its ambitious program, the logic of its popular support was undermined.  The people started worrying about other things, and so the regime needed a new source of power.  It turned, like many other African states, to patronage and corruption to maintain its hold on power.  It also manipulated the party system until 2006, and has had increasingly confrontational relationships with the press and other parties.

The next elections are in 2011.  The people I’ve met and with whom I’ve spoken politics are apprehensive and optimistic at the same time.  Everybody agrees that Museveni, likely nearing 80 and after 24 years in charge, has overstayed his usefulness, but there is no opposition figure with the stature to challenge him.  It also seems unlikely that the NRM will allow Museveni to lose, if it appears to be close: they will rig the vote.  Locals are worried about post-election violence like Kenya in 2008, but party politics here seems less ethnicized than in Kenya.  The one exception is if leading Baganda, the largest ethnic group, form a party, and that party is somehow spurned, then some form of violence might break out.  Museveni is Ankole.  (When the Bagandan royal tombs burned down earlier this year, rioting broke out.)

People are optimistic because they believe, I think incorrectly, that the opposition has a chance of winning.  I think Museveni’s support is too strong in the countryside, and NRM control too pervasive, for Museveni to lose a fair election, and especially to lose a rigged one.  Good and frequent polling will be essential to manage the expectations of the population as the election draws nearer.

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