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Why second place matters in Uganda's stacked election (+video)

Political shifts in thought

President Museveni is widely expected to win a fifth term in Thursday’s vote. But for his opponents, winning is perhaps not the goal.

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    Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni speaks to the media soon after casting his vote at a polling station during the presidential elections in Kirihura in western Uganda, February 18, 2016. Ugandans start casting votes on Thursday to decide whether to give Yoweri Museveni, in power for three decades, another term in office.
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Growing up, Grace Kyandiru adored Yoweri Museveni, the decisive former rebel commander whose presidency had brought her country stability. His ascension in 1986 was a chance to end a grinding post-independence cycle of war and coups so that Uganda could develop and prosper.

But thirty years later, Ms. Kyandiru has given up on her former hero, for reasons that read like a laundry list of social ills: rampant corruption, poverty, crumbling infrastructure. Like most of Uganda's extraordinarily young population, she has never known another leader, and as the country votes in Thursday's presidential election, she’s desperate to see that change.

“I’m hopeful for an [opposition] victory because many people have turned out to vote this time,” she says, after casting her vote for Kizza Besigye, a four-time contender for the presidency who was once Museveni’s personal physician.

Despite a spirited challenge from Mr. Besigye, Amama Mbabazi – Museveni’s former prime minister – and five other lesser known candidates, the results of the vote appear a foregone conclusion. The president, long a master of using persuasion, muscle, and money to win votes, is expected to sweep handily to a fifth term. Besigye was arrested late Thursday, the Associated Press reports.

But behind that story lurks another – that whoever finishes second could emerge after Museveni as a credible alternative leader. The president's party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), leans heavily on the larger-than-life personality of its founder, but when he inevitably goes – by death or retirement more likely than electoral defeat – whoever wins the divided opposition vote could step into the leadership void. 

“Facing an unmovable rock and an unpredictable political future, Museveni’s rivals must compete for the status of heir apparent,” wrote political analysts Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch, and Justin Willis in ForeignPolicy.com. Both Besigye and Mr. Mbabazi “are unlikely to win power on their own in the short term, but could emerge as presidential favorites if they are able to draw support from the factions that might emerge from a possible collapse of the ruling party.”

Besigye – the best known and organized of the challengers – appears the likely candidate for that consolation prize. In many urban areas, his Forum for Democratic Change draws wide support, with voters turning out en masse to hear him and other FDC candidates promise an end to sky-high levels of unemployment – thought to be as high as 83 percent for young people – and the siphoning of public funds by NRM political cronies.

“Are you tired?” chanted the MC at a recent Kampala rally for Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda, a popular FDC member of parliament and Besigye supporter.

“We are tired,” the packed crowd called back, cheering.

Considering Uganda's future

Still, Besigye’s leadership aspirations are far from assured. 

“Besigye’s original advantage was that he challenged Museveni as an insider, and many thought it was a very courageous thing to do and really supported him for it,” says Paul Omach, a political scientist at Makerere University in Kampala. “But once Museveni is gone that context will change completely.” 

Elections in Uganda are neither the open and fair voting of democracies like South Africa nor the elaborate farce of polls in authoritarian Ethiopia. Past elections have been marred by complaints of vote rigging and other irregularities. As for Museveni, he strikes a balance between being genuinely well-liked and genuinely oppressive.

Indeed, at times over the last few months, he has managed his campaign with the light deftness of a runaway favorite, drawing massive crowds and calmly routing rivals on questions of foreign policy in a recent debate. He leads in every opinion poll and has spent twelve times as much on his campaign as his two closest challengers combined. His party holds more than two-thirds of the seats in parliament going into Thursday's vote and is expected to maintain its majority. 

“If you have a good captain, why change?” asked government spokesman Ofwono Opondo during a recent interview with foreign journalists. “The day people are tired of the NRM, they will vote out the NRM."  

Paranoia at play

But if Museveni often seems a benevolent grandfather peering down from the canary-yellow NRM posters and billboards that blanket the country, his campaign has also, at times, turned paranoid. In the run-up to the election, human rights groups reported widespread intimidation of the press – particularly the vernacular radio shows that are most Ugandans’ primary source of news – and an expanded role for the “Crime Preventers,” a volunteer civilian force ostensibly tasked to help keep the peace during election season. Critics say that instead they’re being used to carry out assaults with impunity on behalf of the ruling party.

Mr. Besigye was briefly arrested Monday, and one opposition demonstrator was killed in clashes with police the same day. Meanwhile, a countrywide blackout of social media and money transfer services began early Thursday morning; the Uganda Communications Commission claimed they were being used to bribe voters and continue campaigning after it had officially concluded earlier this week. Internet-savvy Ugandans continued tweeting on the hashtag #UgandaDecides using location-blocking services.

Still, the mood across the country appeared relatively calm as voting began, with the most common complaint the late opening of many polling stations. Results from the election are expected within 48 hours, according to the country’s electoral commission. 

Mike Mulema, a builder and FDC supporter, says he is cautiously optimistic about his party’s prospects, noting that Besigye appears to enjoy far more support in this election than in 2011, when he won 26 percent of the vote (a result he then disputed.)

“I voted Museveni in 2011 with a lot of hope that the situation would change especially the unemployment issue but up to now many of us youth are still suffering,” he says. “I hope that with Kizza [Besigye]’s government this will be addressed and we can enjoy our country again.”

Ryan Lenora Brown's reporting from Uganda was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.

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