KAMPALA – In June this year, then Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden announced that he would not hold rallies because of the rising Covid-19 cases in the USA. At that time, infections stood at 2,400,000 cases, with 122,000 deaths in the USA alone.
This announcement, as was expected, caused consternation in his political camp, especially considering that the do-or-die election was only five months away, opinion polls calling a tight race and yet incumbent President Donald Trump had vowed he would continue with rallies—and not even contracting the virus later would stop him.
Despite protests by some of his handlers, now President-elect Biden held his ground. His decision was informed by science and leadership.
This is what Biden said in June: “This is the most unusual campaign, I think, in modern history. I am going to follow the doctors orders – not just for me but for the country – and that means that I am not going to be holding rallies.”
I do not need to belabour the risk that crowds present in a pandemic like this. With large crowds meeting or following a candidate, it would be very difficult to enforce the Standard Operating Procedures like social distancing, masking, sanitising, among others.
The presence of one infected person in that crowd could be a recipe for disaster, causing possible multiple infections in what scientists call “super-spreader” events.
I have brought up the American context because of the debate that has been raging in the first week of campaigns here in Uganda.
Whereas the Electoral Commission, on the advice of the health ministry, had directed candidates to hold meetings of not more than 70 people (now raised to 200) with clear SoPs, it is now evident that only one candidate, NRM’s Yoweri Museveni, is playing by the book.
The other candidates have chosen a different path. They insist on processions, mainly in the middle of busy trading centres or towns, and want to address big, uncontrolled rallies. It is not surprising, therefore, that the police have had running battles with them.
Within the NRM, there has been a fierce and at times divisive debate on whether President Museveni’s insistence on observing SoPs and resisting to conduct rallies won’t affect his and the party’s fortunes come January 14th, 2021.
To begin with, we should examine the efficacy of rallies in terms of political fortunes. The primary intention of holding rallies is to publicly demonstrate might or support.
That is why the question of crowds becomes a big deal (some camps have already began using pictures from rallies in South Africa). The mood at rallies is usually gay and raucous. Music, dance, rhetoric characterises rallies. Meaningful addresses are hard to achieve, as speaker after speaker will try to get a punchline to get the crowds roaring.
I can understand the pain of some NRM supporters who think the absence of this carnival mood could create a perception of no-support among the public. That was the view of some of Joe Biden’s handlers. They questioned the effectiveness of his make-shift studio addresses from Wilmington, Delaware, while his opponent was moving around decisive swing states holding noisy, energetic rallies.
The American elections perhaps will offer researchers an opportunity to do in-depth studies on effect of rallies on election outcomes but it looks like what is important in elections is for the voters to get your message and appreciate it. Once they do this, it does not really matter if they see you at a rally, watch you on TV or listen to you on radio.
President Museveni has therefore chosen a careful but effective formula and it is an approach his supporters and the wider public should back. He has made it clear he will not hold massive rallies for the obvious health risks. In Nebbi District, he made it clear, “I will not kill my people.” It is a bold statement of leadership, seeing that we have now had over 15,000 Covid-19 cases and 144 deaths.
In a few cases, like it was in Arua, groups of President Museveni’s supporters tried to barricade his convoy to compel him to come out and speak to them. He refused, instead asking his entourage to find a way of circumventing the now-growing crowds and drove off to his meeting venue at Muni University.
At these meetings, the NRM Chairman meets selected party leaders from a given area. He explains to them the ideological foundation of the party, lists the gains made by the country and the particular region courtesy of NRM’s correct thinking, and what to expect in the coming five years.
It is a meticulous and well structured discussion. He then repeats it in the evenings during his radio and TV broadcasts. The select NRM leaders at meetings are like disciples. They are expected to go preach that “gospel” to other followers and recruit new believers, in house-to-house “kakuyege”. They also can conduct small meetings while observing SoPs.
Elections are never won by rallies. Electoral victory is a product of well-planned and well-executed strategy, involving coining the right message, getting it to your audiences and rallying them.
What the NRM faithful need to do is get a copy of the party manifesto, read and internalise it. It has the most detailed documentation of the party’s achievements in the recent past while explaining what the party will do in the coming five years.
And do this proudly. Before the next Parliament is sworn-in, your party already has nine unopposed MPs. The country has just emerged from elections of special interest groups, where the NRM scored above 80% in all the four major categories (Women, Youth, Older Persons & PWDs). They are results that defied faulty pollsters who claimed the party lacked support among urban and youthful demographics.
The only disappointment for the NRM and President Museveni will be if the party gets less than 80 percent in the 2021 elections.
Mr. Don Wanyama is the Senior Presidential Press Secretary