In the grand scheme of things, this victory is largely symbolic, helping the FDC keep a highly coveted seat just a year to the election but leaving the ruling NRM with a very comfortable majority in the House.
However, the FDC win in Mbale offers useful lessons that will determine the composition of Parliament in the next election – if not the occupant of State House. The first lesson is in the numbers; the two NRM candidates – including the one who ran as an Independent after citing fraud in the ruling party primaries – scored more votes together than the opposition candidates.
This means that the NRM has become so big and bloated, infested by genuine believers and rent-seekers, that it is now sagging under the weight of its numbers.
In the absence of a unifying ideology and with internal corruption, especially during the party primaries, the NRM is ripe and big enough for a splinter group to emerge, almost the way the Reform Agenda emerged in the early 2000s.
Such a split is unlikely to happen, however, because none of the top officials who influence opinion in the party are willing to upset the boat and face the personal consequences of opposing the system. However, the opposition has more to learn from the FDC Mbale by-election win.
First, it must stop sending out mixed signals to supporters about where they stand on elections in the country. The current scenario, where party officials stay away from meetings organised by the Electoral Commission in Kampala but field and campaign for candidates in elections organised by the same “discredited” body is confusing and deceptive.
The point – that the opposition does not believe the EC can deliver a free and fair election – has been made.
Yes, President Museveni could – and should – have brought some fresh faces into the EC, especially people with credibility and bi-partisan appeal. He didn’t, so deal with it! Free-and-fair elections are not bought off supermarket shelves; they are achieved by closing off all the loopholes and ensuring that the opportunity cost of stealing elections is much higher than any gains that would accrue.
Incumbents have no incentive to hold free and fair elections that might allow their rivals to win. They are often forced by internal and external pressures and considerations to allow the will of the people to be reflected in the ballot.
Rather than spend too much time on calling for Eng. Kiggundu to resign (he will not, and he could easily be replaced by worse), the opposition should concentrate on proposing an alternative way of governing the country, delivering it in bite-sized messages. They must move beyond telling us what is broken in the country (that is plain to see) and tell us how they will fix it. Do not tell us that there are no drugs in the medical centres or that UPE is producing lousy graduates. We know all this; show us how you will improve things using the same money and tell us in a language we can understand and believe.
And whatever number of people you are able to convince, make sure they register, turn out on election day, and ensure that not only are their votes counted, but that their votes can also count.
Next year’s election will be won, not by the candidate who shouts ‘fire’ but by the candidate who turns up with a fire extinguisher.