One party dominance: threat or opportunity for democratization?
10-12-2017

This blog is the third in a series of insights on Political Paradoxes, through which our Knowledge Development Advisor, Jerome Scheltens, explores how we deal with paradoxes, contradictions or counter-intuitive manifestations in politics through our work.

Recently, we saw the sudden end of Robert Mugabe’s reign in Zimbabwe. Sudden, but not unexpected. With the ruler approaching 94 years of age, sooner or later a political change was going to take place. What still surprised many people, was how relatively peaceful it was.

A key factor in this peaceful transfer of power was of course the disciplined military intervention. But, ultimately, it also came down to the role of the ZANU-PF political party behind the leader. The foiled attempt by ‘Uncle Bob’ to have his wife ‘inherit’ his rule can now be considered a positive result of the fact that an organized party structure is also part of Mugabe’s legacy.

Of course, a political landscape dominated by one party is far from the ideal situation. These political systems are often considered a challenge in democracy assistance work since power concentrated in the hands of one party facilitates state capture. It also complicates the multiparty concept where several parties and a vibrant opposition should provide the electorate with clearly distinguishable policies.

Nevertheless, a strong party seems preferable to a strong president; rule by organized and institutionalized political structures does, at least, increase the chance of a peaceful transfer of power. Parties which are strong enough to balance or limit the leader’s dominance have created a lot of stability and set the stage for peaceful handovers of power in countries like Mozambique and Tanzania.

In fact, while many of us may not even know the names of the current presidents of these countries, Frelimo and CCM are well known ruling parties. Given the current international focus on stability and the prevention of violence, the role of strong parties in easing the transfer of power should not be underestimated.

However, the dominance of the Executive, especially in presidential systems, is a far more difficult challenge. Uganda is a case in point, and I am of course not the first to now look at Museveni’s Uganda, following what happened in Zimbabwe.

The National Resistance Movement (NRM) operates as the dominant presidential party in Uganda but this former military machine has still not fully transformed into a professional political structure like Mugabe’s ZANU-PF. One reason is that Museveni has never seemed to have a great love for political parties in general, having stalled and changed the formal multiparty system on several occasions during his rule. So far, Museveni seems to have hinted at neither a personal nor a party succession. It would seem, then, that a less institutionalized party managing the demise of a leader makes a peaceful transition more challenging.

So, the situation in Uganda is far removed from the strong party system in Mozambique and Tanzania, and from the strongly-rooted party structure in Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, in all these contexts the key is to support and work with all the existing parties and to encourage dialogue between them while finding opportunities to give smaller parties a voice. This is what we at NIMD understand by inclusive dialogue with all relevant parties.