FDC was the greatest challenge to the National Resistance Movement in the 2006 Presidential and Parliamentary elections. Besigye was the party's presidential candidate, taking 37% of the vote against Museveni's 59%. Besigye alleged fraud and rejected the result.
The origins of the Forum for Democratic Change are intertwined with the history of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) led by president Yoweri Museveni. The NRM through its military wing the National Resistance Army fought a successful guerrilla war against the governments of Milton Obote and Tito Okello and came to power in Uganda in 1986. During the guerrilla war, Yoweri Museveni had successfully moulded various interest groups into an effective military machine, and on achieving power began to build the NRM into cohesive political organisation. The transition process and the NRM's desire to broaden its political base revealed other interests within the party and a feeling amongst some senior members of being sidelined.
Museveni had relied heavily on the support of the Tutsi refugees and their descendants who had been forced out of Rwanda by the Hutu majority in the 1960's. During the guerrilla war, the NRA had moved from the central district of Luwero to the west of the country where most of the Tutsis had been recruited. On achieving power, Tutsis like Paul Kagame and Fred Gisa Rwigema were rewarded with powerful positions within the army and government.
The NRA advance on Kampala had been very rapid, and during this process hundreds of new recruits had been incorporated into the NRA. Many of these came from Museveni's own tribe, the Banyankole and other western tribes like the Batoro. When the NRA advanced back into Buganda through the town of Masaka, their ranks were expanded by Baganda, many who travelled from different parts of Buganda to join the guerrillas. For many of these, the common goal was simply to oust the northern dominated government. There were also those who saw the opportunity to use the NRA to achieve Buganda's ambitions of autonomy.
Another important development was the NRA recruitment of younger impressionable soldiers who often held Museveni in awe. This did not often go down well with the more senior NRA officers:
The younger educated cadres began to gain more influence in the NRM. Many had only joined the war towards its conclusion or had joined as NRM cadres after the war. This rivalry was often vocal and acrimonious:
The young cadres and the Tutsi refugees formed the new power base of the NRM, and the party increasingly appeared tribal. Ugandan politics has been plagued by tribalism, and the young cadres with their new influence often encouraged the appointment of their relatives into key government positions. Most of these cadres were from the south-west of Uganda like Museveni.
This power base was suddenly weakened when the Tutsi refugees led by Paul Kagame decided to return to Rwanda to fight the government there. The loss of so many key military and political advisers particularly in the intelligence services left Museveni vulnerable. The NRM realised it had to broaden its appeal, first by appeasing the Baganda (Uganda's largest ethnic group) by restoring their king the Kabaka, and recruiting more people from other tribes into the armed forces. The NRM also emphasised its role in restoring law and order to the country and continuously evoked the fear amongst the southern tribes that the brutal northern armies of Milton Obote and Idi Amin could return if the NRM failed. This fear was facilitated by the war in the north waged by the Lords Resistance Army. The NRM also presided over rapid economic growth in the south of Uganda.
With this new confidence Museveni began to act against those challenging his authority in the NRM. Many of these were the original members of the NRM/NRA including the army commander Major General Mugisha Muntu and other once powerful NRM leaders. Many of these leaders opted for quiet retirement in their home districts, but others like Mugisha Muntu and the former NRM spokesperson Winnie Byanyima began openly criticising Museveni. However there appeared to be little enthusiasm to completely break with the NRM, rather to encourage change from within.
This changed in the elections in 2001 when a retired NRA officer called Kizza Besigye challenged Museveni for the presidency. Besigye was relatively unknown outside the NRM/NRA establishment, but his courage in standing for election attracted both curiosity and support. He was also in a relationship with Winnie Byanyima the vocal former NRM spokesperson. Winnie Byanyima's family was close to Museveni's and there were reports that the two had once had an affair. This added drama to the elections which were held without political parties. Besigye attracted many of the disgruntled former NRA/NRM members, but they were unable to overhaul Museveni's popularity and lost to the president by a large margin in the elections.
The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) was formally established in 2004. Kizza Besiyge had gone into exile in the United States and then South Africa. However the genesis of the party was in Uganda where many disgruntled NRM members were actively promoting the establishment of a political organisation to challenge Yoweri Museveni. This desire was further cemented when Museveni changed the constitution to allow him to stand for a third presidential term. This had angered many NRM veterans who had remained in the NRM waiting to take over when Museveni stood down. The constitutional amendment was criticised by some of Museveni's closest allies like Eriya Kategaya - at the time seen by many as the number two in the NRM/NRA political hierarchy. However this opposition did not bother Museveni who had by now firmly established himself in the NRM.
The FDC benefited from this disquiet, and when Kizza Besiyge returned to Uganda he found the FDC had considerable support even within the ranks of the NRM. This factor prompted Museveni to arrest Besigye. Although it was doubtful that Besiyge could win an election against Museveni, the fact that he was attracting support from NRA (now renamed the Uganda Peoples Defence Force) members brought the spectre of a split in the army. The FDC had many ex-NRA commanders in its ranks including the former army commander Mugisha Muntu. Another factor was that many of these politicians were from the same region of Uganda as Museveni and therefore they could attract support from the president's own backyard.
Kizza Besigye's arrest was a political blunder which only served to increase the popularity of the FDC. But the party now began to suffer due to its success. Many of the prominent ex-NRM members were reluctant to publicly criticise Museveni. Politicians like Erya Kategaya who was now in the FDC leadership were tentative in their approach. A further hindrance was that the government placed enormous restrictions on Kizza Besigye's ability to mount a national campaign. The FDC was extremely popular in urban areas like the capital city, Kampala, but with limited campaign time could not effectively campaign in rural areas where 70% of the population live. The NRM on the other hand spent enormous energy campaigning in rural areas and small towns.
The FDC and Besiyge were also popular in the North where the population has suffered almost two decades of war between the government and the Lord's Resistance Army. This despite the fact that the FDC hardly campaigned in this area. This is a reflection of the grievances felt by northern Ugandans who often feel abandoned by the government in Kampala.
Despite these obstacles the FDC won over 30% of the vote, a major achievement for a party that was hardly a year old. The party eclipsed the traditional opposition parties like the Uganda People's Congress and the Democratic Party (Uganda)
As discussed previously, the FDC had attracted many ex-NRM/NRA members making them susceptible to overtures from the NRM. After the election a number of FDC leaders including Eriya Kategaya accepted ministerial and other positions in Museveni's government. The period until the next election will test the FDC's staying power, and whether many of its leaders can resist the temptation to return to the NRM fold if they are invited back.