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Collapse of the Opposition Inter-Party Coalition in Uganda

Catherine Promise Biira

6. Lessons and Future Outlook

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1The foregoing account is not intended to suggest that arriving at the IPC protocols was easy, or that the road became muddied only after adoption of the electoral platform. Both FDC and CP leaders separately experienced some misgivings in relation to the Protocols. These included the lack of clear guidelines as to how the IPC candidates at all levels other than the presidential would be selected. The issue of adoption of common symbols and colours, as well as their relationship to individual party identities, was also yet to be resolved. The decision to participate in the election after threatening to boycott and the agreement upon a mode of selecting the joint presidential candidate were reportedly the most difficult to reach. In spite of these obstacles, the parties were able, initially, to come to a common agreement, underscored by an understanding that some of the issues would be addressed as the Cooperation proceeded.

2When asked whether they thought inter-party cooperation among the opposition would be possible in the future, following the collapse of the IPC, party leaders responded that it was certainly not impossible, but with varying degrees of conviction. The CP leader expressed despair at what happened to the IPC, but said he believed that cooperation was still possible, even inevitable, if the opposition was to ever succeed in unseating the NRM. The UPC leader, on the other hand, felt that although future cooperation is possible, the defeat of the NRM did not necessarily require a united opposition, adding that the future of democracy lies in competition between strong, well-defined and ideologically grounded political parties.

3Dr. Otunnu mentioned that the UPC and the DP had well articulated ideological orientations, adding that, in contrast, the FDC and the ruling NRM ‘have a hard time’ explaining their ideological commitments. For his part, the FDC leader said that one factor making future cooperation seem increasingly likely is the consistency of the electorate in punishing parties that defect from opposition unity. He noted that in both the 2006 and 2011 elections, parties refused to cooperate and fielded their own candidates were ignored by the electorate. Dr. Besigye interpreted the dismal performance of the DP and UPC’s presidential candidates in those elections as an expression of the voters’ disapproval of party leaders’ break away from coalitions. There was, however, agreement that common ground upon which principled cooperation could be initiated still exists. The table below highlights possible areas of convergence which the parties could focus on for successful cooperation.

Table 1: Individual and Joint Party Interests

UPC Interest

Joint Interests

FDC Interests

– Gainrecognition as an important player in directing the opposition political parties’ agenda

– Reclaim its former glory

– Clear its name from allegations of past crimes

– Effect democratic change in the country

– Build the confidence of the electorate in the opposition

– Weaken the support base of the NRM

– Overcome obstacles to the full realization of free and open democratic multiparty governance

– Consolidate its strength as a party

– Maintain its role as leader and mobilizer of the opposition around joint interests

From the perspective of party leaders, several lessons could be drawn from the collapse of the Cooperation. The first is the realization that while it is difficult to predict a single factor capable of ensuring the convergence of all parties, one needs to work for convergence from all angles. Parties should work with all other parties while also continuing to engage the electorate so that they understand the dynamics of cooperation and are not overly discouraged even if the formal arrangement does not continue as expected. Second, the failed experience of the IPC should not lead to the conclusion that cooperation is impossible, but that it is not easy. Third, in addition to formal institutional structures and agreements, the intangible is absolutely crucial to building the spirit of cooperation. In the absence of confidence and trust that all involved will abide by their word, cooperation is not possible. Political parties in Uganda are currently lacking the intangibles required for successful cooperation. It is this they must focus on building in the future.

5Expanding upon the preceding discussion, in order to renegotiate IPC with a greater chance of success, the following strategies ought to be followed: limit direct intra-coalition competition among the cooperating partners; encourage gradual and thorough discussion of each step before making formal commitments; create a legitimate ‘exit option’ for those whose interests can no longer be accommodated by the Cooperation; avoid an ‘all or nothing’ deal structure; place a greater focus on long-term interests than short-term positions; map relevant constituents and align their interests to guide the cooperation; and, finally avoid both institutional and mandate overstretch.

6As the case of the IPC has demonstrated, even if external conditions create a demand for inter-party cooperation, a negotiation cannot be successful in the absence of favourable internal conditions. The electorate’s desire for a united opposition and the international donors’ belief in its strategic political value were heeded. Years of suspicion, mutual mistrust, immaturity, internal wrangles, weak institutional structures and a constraining political environment, however, could not support the weight of the coalition. In the end, the collapse of the IPC further fractured the parties’ relationship and eroded the little pre-existing goodwill. Although it is theoretically possible to converge around the common interests noted above, if cooperation is to be sustained, the relevant parties must engage in significant confidence-building measures to deal with underlying feelings of mistrust. Otherwise, as stated by the UPC leader:

  • 1  Dr. Olara Otunnu, President, Uganda People’s Congress. Interview held in Kampala, 17 April 2012.

‘It’s not so much what you agree upon, what you write on paper, but something intangible that in the end determines these things. The spirit in which we work together, the kind of confidence built, how you relate with each other makes the biggest difference. Confidence boosts and consolidates the cooperation; when there is tension and suspicion in a very formal set up, that undermines the cooperation.’1


1  Dr. Olara Otunnu, President, Uganda People’s Congress. Interview held in Kampala, 17 April 2012.


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