Party Primaries Are Not The Panacea for Weak Leadership

16 Mar

By Philip Nsajja

Author: Philip Nsajja

I wrote the comments below in response to Ms. Nina Mbabazi’s suggestion that: “I believe to build strong party leadership, political parties in the IPOD should agree to have party primaries in the same period of time to prevent people from crossing over from party to party and to prevent sabotage. The way they do it in the US.


Nina, I’m struggling to see how and why agreeing to party primaries in Uganda should draw lessons from “the way they do it in the US”, or how this can build strong party leadership. In fact, I would submit that if there is anything to be learned, primary elections in the US should be a case study in how NOT to run a party primaries!

I stand to be corrected, but it’s my sense that the spectacle of “crossing over from party to party” that we continuously witness in Uganda, is driven more by a combination of greed and fear of political irrelevance, than any core ideological beliefs.

We’ve been witnessing this phenomenon from the earliest days of our nationhood. In the 1960s as he sought to out-maneuver the opposition, then Prime Minster Obote urged then DP leader Basil Bataringaya to cross the floor of the house and join the government, and Bataringaya obliged. “An opposition is only necessary,” Obote said thereafter, “if it has an alternative policy to offer, but this is not the case in Uganda.” Does this sound vaguely familiar?

Obote then went on to declare that he no longer recognised the ‘official’ opposition. “In the constitution there is no provision for a parliamentary opposition,” he said. “This post died when the former leader, Mr. Basil Bataringaya, crossed over to the government side.” It was a classic and coldly executed coup de grace delivered in vintage Obote style!

In the early 1980s, it wasn’t as subtle. Obote and his UPC opted for more blatant strong arm tactics as a means of political persuasion and coercion. This led to the shameful spectacle that we witnessed at the Busoga Square in Jinja when Busoga’s DP MPs crossed over en masse right in front of Obote and his cohorts. The only hold-out was Professor Yoweri Kyesimira (RIP), and he ended up paying for his perceived obstinacy very dearly. We witnessed variations of this spectacle during the recently concluded presidential and parliamentary campaigns when for instance, several high profile UPC members genuflected before the “man in a hat” by crossing over to the NRM. My guess is that these gentlemen are just your average political opportunists who clearly know which side of their bread is buttered and went with the flow! The president is a man wise enough to have known this, but being the savvy political player that he is, he played along!

And of course there is the most recent case of the so-called independents, which led to a challenge in the Constitutional Court.

Nina, what I’ve observed is that what builds strong leadership and prevents people from crossing over from one party to another here in the US, is not just the fact that they have party primaries. Actually it’s something a lot simpler than that. Elected officials here actually tend to believe in something greater than their most immediate and narrow personal interests. That is primarily what motivates them to join, vote for and seek office under the banner of a particular party. And when they do so, they stay put where they are since they believe that their single vote actually amounts to something. They are not easily swayed by threats from their leadership. They are motivated by a higher purpose and are driven by their own ideological leanings – conservative or liberal and not petty selfish motivations like “Nnalya wa?”  or “Kulembeka”. There is a tendency for politicians and elected officials in Uganda to simply go with the winner. And that winner is usually one with deep enough pockets to shell out an occasional and unsolicited 20 million shillings around election time!

For most people, this ideological marriage to a particular party is a lifelong commitment. Yes, they may occasionally vote with the opposing party but rarely do you see or hear members of Congress or state assemblies switching party allegiances. Even in states that are heavily dominated by a single party, the opposition never sells its core beliefs by merely going with the winner. At the rate at which the fortunes of political parties ebb and flow, we would be witnessing party defections in huge numbers after every congressional election cycle and yet that almost never happens.

Unlike in Uganda where the threat of expulsion from a party hovers over members’ heads if they vote the ‘wrong’ way, representatives in the US are rarely under any such pressure. Yes, parties in Congress have a Whip who counts the votes and may twist a few arms here and there, but such is the nature and beauty of a true liberal democracy. Elected officials usually vote their conscience and party leaders do everything they can to make sure their caucus remains united and intact. The members are answerable to the constituents who elect them and not any particular party platform or the whims of the leaders. They can therefore switch their votes back and forth if they believe it’s in the best interest of the people in their congressional districts or local jurisdictions. In fact if the elected representatives are under any pressure, it’s usually from their constituents and not their respective political parties or leadership. Woe to any politician who puts the interest of the party before his people for they will punish you very severely – at the polls. This is so unlike the farce we constantly witness in parliament in the pseudo-democracy that’s Uganda.

In fact, in the few and rare cases in the US when an elected official switches parties, it’s usually because the party no longer represents the wishes, interests and desires of that politician’s electorate. In other words, the politician’s survival depends on breaking with the party which may have veered to the far-left or far-right.

When it comes to party primaries, many political observers actually believe the primary election system here is broken and has proven to be a huge weakness as it relates to party strength. It usually degenerates into a ‘weeding-out’ process where at least at the state level, ideological purity tramps everything else. The people who usually participate in state primary elections are die-hard left-wing or right-wing party members who rarely tolerate any moderation. That’s why we always witness a phenomenon where an individual who would be otherwise moderate, veers to the extreme right or left in order to win a party primary in order survive just to be able to compete in the general election, at which point they usually pivot back to the middle – the place where American elections are actually won or lost.

The situation may be slightly different at the national level, especially as it relates to the presidential primaries where the national party actually strives to pick the strongest candidate that can win a national election. But critics of the primary election system here in the US (and I am one of them) believe that at the state level, the system is particularly rigged against moderates. The ‘ideological purity’ test only serves the purpose of discouraging good people who are not driven by shallow ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ labels from participating, because quite honestly, if they do participate, such people rarely win party primaries. Quite simply put, with the current system in place, the parties are sabotaging themselves from within.

So Nina, with all due respect, the party primaries in the US that you are citing as something worth emulating in Uganda, are not the panacea for building strong leadership or long-term party viability. In the US they are increasingly considered a huge weakness and liability by most political observers and that’s why most voters don’t even bother to participate in that exercise. The system is structurally rigged in favor of dyed-in-the-wool party ideologues. A lot of times, strong and worthy candidates who have the money to fund their own campaigns outside of the party structure, will simply choose to ignore the primary voters and mount independent runs. Primary voters tend to do a party a major disservice by electing ideologically “pure” candidates who may be strong in the narrow confines of the party but cannot win a general election. Rather than strengthening the parties, primary elections have degenerated into ideological orgies that have disenchanted a broad swath of voters. That, in my opinion, can only be a weakness.

I would therefore go against convention by insisting that the emergence of independent-minded politicians who are not beholden to the whims of their individual parties, but are instead answerable primarily to their constituents, represent not a weakness, but a maturation of Uganda’s political environment. We need more, and not less of them. Political parties shouldn’t be monoliths where homogeneity of opinion is what counts. As Nina noted above, members should be encouraged to have divergent opinions and be at liberty to vote as they please without suffering the wrath of the leaders in the name of ‘party discipline’. Internal democracy that allows dissent and a plurality of opinion would drive a party into making sure it develops a broad platform which in turn leads to internal strength.

That said, I find the claim that the “…NRM allows people with divergent views to be heard…” to be very wanting, because if they do, they sure as hell aren’t showing it. In most cases, all we hear from the “man in the hat” is constant haranguing of those whom he considers undisciplined; those with the ‘cojones’ and audacity to question party orthodoxy and unwilling to tow the official party line. For people like me on the outside who may or may not consider joining this party, that’s a very lousy way of selling their brand. From the outside looking in, this is precisely what Koestler had in mind when he wrote in ‘Darkness at Noon’ that:

 “The party’s course was sharply defined; like a narrow path down a mountain, any slightest false step left or right, sends one down the precipice.”

The NRM party must not only be democratic, but it must be SEEN to be democratic. Backroom wheeling and dealing and mere talk about the presence of “internal democracy” appear to be just empty sloganeering. I would actually like to see it to believe it and so far, I don’t see much of this within the NRM.


Posted by on March 16, 2011 in Stephen Twinoburyo's blogs


3 responses to “Party Primaries Are Not The Panacea for Weak Leadership

  1. Twino Speaks

    March 16, 2011 at 10:13

    Thank you very much Philip for this piece. It’s very informative and the comparison with Uganda is very poignant. I actually think major parties in these big democracies like US or Britain have made it virtually impossible for anybody who’s… not part of them to make it to the top. At least in the UK, the liberals have managed to be part of govt. I don’t see that in the US.

    The idea behind primaries in Uganda may have been good because of the numerous people available for the party ticket positions but I think greed went beyond desire to serve thus the violence we saw within the NRM. My view may be extreme, and if so I apologise, but I actually think VERY few people on the NRM ticket are in politics to serve.

    As for Nina, I find the statement “… the NRM allows people with divergent views to be heard.” not suspect but very misleading. I think Nina is trying to walk to middle line in her writings, praising the NRM because it’s the party that feeds her on one hand and criticising it in other areas in order to appear independent or show genuine frustration but I think in the long run, this position does not build confidence and trust on either side.

  2. Godfrey

    March 17, 2011 at 05:39

    Thanks Philip,

    This article highlights the format of politics in Uganda. The last high level crop to walk across the aisle, the UPC diehards really is telling. Ideology has given way to expediency. Long term survival is higher in needs hierarchy than permanent ideology.

    The question then begs itself: What do the politicians stand for? In the 80’s we saw DP align itself to NRM, a repeat of the Bataringaya cross over. So, wasn’t Obote correct that there was no opposition? Did the ideals of UPC and DP then or DP and NRM recently align?

    It has always been said that there are no permanent friends but permanent interests in politics. I think that statement is not repeated in all democratic dispensations, as you have recently shown in the US example. Maybe it is time for a redefinition of “Permanent Interests”. The practice of this in Uganda is revealing that the permanent interests have to do more with individual interests, rather than ideological interests. IN short, the permanent interest has to do with the living standards, not a party line.

    This is what M7 has adeptly used to control his people. He has read the mood correctly, and that is why Wegulo crossed over when his group lost the UPC nomination.

    Today, we must talk of “Politics of the Stomach” as a more appropriate evolution of the “Permanent Interests” concept. Each one takes care of their own. This is the theory behind tribalism, as ‘their own’ extends to ethnic groups. So, while the NRM is in power in Uganda, it is also true that the allegations of tribalism and entrenchment of certain ethnic groups in key positions, is an apt example of ‘politics of the stomach’, taking care of their own.

    For Uganda to transcend this ridiculous political reality, another fundamental change is required. Corruption of such a regime is not easily removed, and based on the performance of the opposition in their own primary elections, from the example of FDC and UPC, it is clear that the same considerations of ‘their own’ are in play. I recall a statement from Wafula Oguttu and Reagan Okumu saying, and I paraphrase, that the next FDC leader should not come from Western Uganda since it would be unfair to the rest of the country. This statement doesn’t have any democratic basis, since the reality should be that the choice for leader of the party should be subjected to a democratic process. Would there be more problems if the democratic process chose a Westerner? At the back of this comment is the understanding that the national cake should be ‘divided’ among their own, this time round.

    Such are the politics of Uganda. If anyone is looking at setting up a new political organization, these are the realities that will haunt them, and from the beginning, must be dealt with. Otherwise, any new political organization will be a replica of FDC, NRM, UPC which all have the same thread running through all of them, “Politics of the Stomach!”.

  3. Aaron Magezi

    March 22, 2011 at 18:39

    Philip a very well informed piece and I enjoyed it very much.
    Jolly good read!


    Thanks Aaron


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