Elections can be transformative, but they can also be costly. Costs include the vast amounts of money that candidates spend on their campaigns, as well as the promises made and expectations raised.
Evidence suggests that Uganda’s presidential election in February could be particularly costly, ensuring that whoever wins faces a number of significant challenges.
Uganda’s last presidential election in 2011 was characterised by less violence and intimidation than the previous one in 2006, but by a significant increase in the use of money.
As a consequence, after the election, inflationary pressures exacerbated popular frustration with socio-economic problems such as underemployment and corruption, while depleted state coffers constrained the government’s capacity to respond. This culminated in months of popular protest and clashes between “Walk to Work” campaigners and state security services.
Unfortunately, the commercialisation of politics that accelerated in 2011 continues unabated, as many voters demand direct assistance from presidential and parliamentary candidates, and as the National Resistance Movement tries to fight both the official opposition and internal divisions through the use of extensive patronage.
Such excessive spending — together with the fact that the Ugandan government is already deeply indebted — means that, whoever wins, will find little money left to spend over the rest of the financial year. They will also find that election-related spending has pushed up prices and eroded the real earnings of ordinary citizens.
Significantly, opposition activists have tried to turn such a commercialisation of politics on its head. As, instead of giving out money and other goodies at Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) rallies, Kizza Besigye’s supporters increasingly give gifts to their leader.
However, in practice, this new development rests on more continuity than change, as the popular understanding is that Besigye will provide assistance once elected.
As a result, whoever wins will face a limited budget and inflationary pressure. They will also face high expectations and popular pressure to make good on the extensive promises that they made in their electoral manifestos.
In the case of a Museveni victory, this combination of factors to likely fuel popular protests — as it did in 2011. In addition, it will contribute to schisms within the NRM as politicians try and position themselves for a post-Museveni era — with many feeling that this is the last time that Museveni will stand.
Similarly, if Besigye and the FDC or Amama Mbabazi and the “Go Forward” movement emerge victorious, a tight fiscal situation will severely test their capacity to make good on the extensive reforms that they have promised.
Indeed, as with many opposition politicians around the world, Besigye’s manifesto appears to be overly ambitious. Particularly costly to implement will be the promised hikes to teachers’ salaries and the creation of thousands of jobs, and the introduction of federo (or federalism).
However, a tight fiscal situation and high expectations are not the only challenges that the president-elect will face. He will also be left with a legacy of political intimidation and violence, and high levels of popular political scepticism.
The 2016 election campaigns have already been marked by the return of significant intimidation and violence. A recent Amnesty International report recorded how the police have arbitrarily arrested a number of political opposition leaders and used excessive force to disperse peaceful political gatherings.
More specifically, the report detailed how opposition candidates have repeatedly been placed under “preventive arrest” while police have indiscriminately fired teargas and rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators.
Particularly worrying has been the recruitment and training of thousands of Crime preventers — the timing of which fostered suspicions that they would be used to intimidate opposition supporters and to mobilise support for the NRM.
This has already been borne out by numerous reports of the so-called crime preventers being used to intimidate opposition supporters during the country’s party primaries. Finally, there are reports of militias being trained by NRM politicians close to the president.
As a result, another challenge for the president elect, will be how to ensure that further violence is limited and contained, and crime preventers and other militias associated with prominent politicians are demobilised.
This will be a particular challenge in the instance of a close election. In short, if Museveni wins by a small margin, the opposition is likely to reject the results, while they may also try to mobilise their supporters to come out to protest against the incumbent’s re-election.
In turn, if the opposition wins by a small margin, there is the question of whether Museveni and his supporters will accept the result, and how they will respond to any subsequent attempts to redistribute wealth and power, or to bring culprits to account for corruption and other crimes.
At the same time, the new president will also have to deal with a burgeoning sense of political scepticism. Indeed, Ugandans are becoming increasingly cynical about the political elite. Thus, many see Museveni and other prominent NRM politicians as simply interested in protecting and consolidating their economic gains.
At the same time, Museveni’s strategy of blaming his subordinates for governance-related issues has come at a cost; with many Ugandans believing that corruption is endemic among politicians and within the civil service. As a result, many Ugandans are deeply cynical about the political system as a whole — a situation that will not be addressed by a mere change of leadership at the top.
In turn, many view Besigye and Mbabazi’s inability to agree on a single presidential candidate through The Democratic Alliance as evidence of their own personal ambitions. More specifically, Besigye’s political reputation is marred by the fact that he has already lost three elections and is often dismissed — especially by NRM supporters — as a loser with an unrealistic political agenda.
In turn, and as one reader remarked in a letter to me, Mbabazi (unlike Besigye who has long suffered in the opposition) is popularly regarded as “one of the architects of the current ruling system in Uganda.” In turn, he is seen as untrustworthy by many who doubt “his ability to change a system which he, until recently was at the heart of” constructing.
This is not to suggest that the president-elect cannot overcome such challenges, or that reforms are impossible. Indeed, a clear electoral victory could usher in a honeymoon period — a rare window of opportunity when more radical policies and programmes are easier to introduce.
However, in reality, the candidate who is the most likely to win by such a margin is the incumbent, President Museveni, who is the least likely to try and implement such reforms.
In short, the options facing next year’s president-elect will be largely dependent on the margin of their victory, the peacefulness of any transfer of power, the extent to which the election is perceived to be free and fair, and the support that the country continues to receive from the donor community and its neighbours. The legacies of the electoral campaigns will thus be felt long after the results are announced.
Gabrielle Lynch is an associate professor of comparative politics, at the University of Warwick in the UK