The February 18 election in Uganda is President Yoweri Museveni’s to lose as he seeks to extend his 30-year stay in office, but with recent opinion polls showing his main rival Dr Kizza Besigye gaining ground, we explore some of the key issues that will determine the outcome.
This is arguably the most important issue and the hardest to predict. According to the Electoral Commission, there are 15,277,196 Ugandans registered to vote. But while the number of eligible and registered voters has been rising in each of the last four elections (with the exception of 2006, of which we shall return), the number of people who bother to turn up and vote has been falling.
It peaked at 72.60 per cent in 1996, the first time Ugandans directly voted for their president, fell to 70.31 per cent in 2001, 69.19 per cent in 2006 and then plunged to 59.29 per cent in 2011.
Voter turnout determines not just the winner of the election but also the legitimacy of the government they form. Several studies of the past three elections in Uganda have shown a pattern of high turnout in areas where President Museveni enjoys support, and much lower turnout in opposition strongholds.
The cause is subject to interpretation and depending on who you ask, ranges from the incumbent’s better organisational competencies and ability to get out the vote, vote inflation in his strongholds and suppression in hostile areas, to apathy among opposition supporters. The effect, however, is less debatable; winning areas of high voter turnout with a large margin is key to electoral success and President Museveni has traditionally done a better job of rallying his base.
For instance, in 2011, 83 per cent of registered voters turned out in Kiruhura, Museveni’s home district in southwest Uganda and he dutifully swept up 94 per cent of the vote. By comparison, Besigye won the vote-rich and opposition-leaning Kampala but just over one in two registered voters bothered to turn up meaning that the opposition candidate had a narrow margin of victory of less than 4,000 votes in the only district he won, and that he left more than half a million ballots on the table.
Of the 5.7 million who did not vote in 2011, just under two million were in the urban areas of Kampala and Wakiso, where the opposition is expected to be strong and have a lot of support.
This low turnout helped candidate Museveni coast to an easy victory with 68 per cent of the vote but it meant that he received fewer votes than the total — 5.7 million — that did not turn up to vote, leaving him, in effect, in charge of a minority government.
The advantage here remains with candidate Museveni. Incumbency makes it easier for the NRM candidate to canvass for support in the rural areas and to get out the vote. On the other hand, a survey in early December by polling firm Infotrak for the Daily Monitor newspaper which is published by Nation Media Group, found that those who said they did not intend to vote were 78 per cent urban, 55 per cent female, and 67 per cent aged 35 and below — a demographic that would be expected to lean towards the opposition.
The demographic composition of voters matters beyond turnout on Election Day. With a median age of 15.7, Uganda has one of the youngest populations in the world and, adjusting for the low turnout in 2011, it is safe to argue that at least one in every two voters will be voting for the first time.
It explains why this campaign and the one before it has been youth-focused, with candidate Museveni recording a much acclaimed hip-hop track in 2011 and one last year that didn’t exactly make platinum, while pro-Besigye musicians have also recorded songs in his honour. This belies the seriousness of the youth issue.
With a youth unemployment rate anywhere between 24 per cent and 67 per cent, depending on which figures you look at, whoever can get the young people on their side will gain a serious advantage, argues Crispy Kaheru of the Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy, a grouping of local NGOs and civil society organisations.
“Many of them are registered to vote and they just need a reason [even as late as] February 17 to wake up the next day and go out and vote,” he says. “A lot of the campaign issues have converged around poverty and unemployment and it is the young people that are most affected by this so their voice will be key.”
Both Museveni and Besigye have tried to target the key rural demographic by holding rallies deep in the villages and with good reason — more than eight out of every 10 Ugandans live in a rural area and World Bank data lists it as the fifth most rural population in the world.
Mr Museveni has swept the rural vote in all past elections and has run the current campaign with messages targeting rural voters, including the divisive promise to import 18 million hand hoes which, despite being the bane of jokes by urban elites, is the kind of vote winning message among rural peasants.
Five of the eight presidential candidates come from western Uganda, including the three leading contenders. With Besigye and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi coming from the same ethnic bloc, none of the challengers is able to bring a solid ethnic or geographic bloc behind them, giving the incumbent an advantage of nation-wide appeal, but also narrowing the target areas that rivals must win if they are to dislodge him.
About half of all votes up for grabs are in just four electoral regions: Kampala with 2.4 million; southwest with two million, Kiira (near eastern Uganda) with 1.5 million, and northern with 1.4 million. If you add the two other regions with more than a million votes, Elgon with 1.47 million and central south with 1.46 million, these six regions have 10.5 million votes, or two out of every three votes.
Candidate Museveni is traditionally strong in southwest and central south and should carry those easily, while he is also expected to maintain the gains that saw him win the north for the first time in 2011. The battlegrounds therefore will be in the urban Kampala region, the poor Kiira region and Elgon region, which titled towards the opposition in the last election.
The incumbent simply needs to hold his strongholds, maintain favour in the north and perform competitively in the rest of the regions. Besigye, the leading contender, has to win the urban Kampala decisively, ensure that Elgon crosses to his side, keep Teso from slipping back into ruling party hands, and perform competitively in western Uganda and greater Buganda where he has traditionally been a distant second.
If poverty is the question then to many voters money is the answer. Several election observer reports noted the influence of money in determining the outcome of the 2011 election, ranging from delaying funding for social projects and programmes to the campaign period, to cash hand-outs to voters and spending on campaign events and materials.
Here the incumbent holds a decisive advantage. A recent report by Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring, a loose coalition of civil society activists advocating for increased transparency, revealed that Museveni spent Ush27 billion ($7.8 million) in November and December 2015, 12 times more than his two closest challengers combined.
FDC’s Besigye came third with a campaign spend of Ush976 million ($282,000) behind Mbabazi who spent Ush1.3 billion ($375,200) according to the report. Although presidential candidates are required by law to declare their campaign revenues and expenditures to the Electoral Commission, no report has been made public and this was the first public indicator of the cost of campaigning.
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Beyond the obvious benefits of having a large cash kitty, such as the ability to run campaign advertisements and pay for other expenses, money, or the lack of it, could be behind Mbabazi’s faltering campaign, according to officials familiar with the matter.
Mbabazi came into the campaign with a long track record of holding powerful positions in government, a reputation for meticulous preparation, and reports of a large financial war chest. An official close to the Mbabazi presidential campaign who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, told this newspaper that at one point there were “at least 8,900” candidates vying for different elective positions, “including 620 independent parliamentary candidates” who were waiting to join Mbabazi’s Go-Forward campaign and get funding for their campaigns.
When little or no money was forthcoming, many of these fence- sitters either returned to the NRM where they had lost party primaries in controversial circumstances, or decided to lobby together in a loose association of independents.
Uniquely, Besigye has been collecting money and gifts offered to him on the campaign trail, a reversal of roles in the commercialised state of Ugandan politics and far from being a symbolic sign of support, officials close to the campaign say the money goes a long way in buying fuel, food and providing for the volunteers.
There is anecdotal evidence of this gulf in resources, with social media full of pictures of NRM officials and candidates surrounded by piles of money, while those of Besigye show him receiving coins, chickens and other gifts. While the latter is clearly heart-warming, experience from 2011 and other elections shows it is cash, not love, than wins elections among poor voters.
Two horses and a pony
Partly as a result of the opportunism that surrounded the early promise around his candidature, and partly as a result of the intense pressure he and his close associates have come under from state institutions over the past 24 months, Mbabazi’s campaign has struggled to achieve take off, with all opinion polls so far putting him below double-digits.
“It is clear that Mbabazi planned to run as an NRM candidate, and not as an independent outside the support base and systems of the regime,” a Western diplomat told this newspaper, on condition of anonymity in order not to be sanctioned for commenting on domestic political matters.
In the early December 2015 Infotrak/Daily Monitor opinion poll, respondents were asked who they would vote for if candidate Mbabazi was not on the ballot. Just over half (54 per cent) said they’d vote for candidate Museveni while 35 per cent said they would vote for Besigye, suggesting that the former PM has taken some support from either candidate but has not done enough to build his own support base among voters.
“It was billed as a three-horse race,” the political analyst familiar with the Go Forward campaign told this newspaper, “but it has turned into two horses and an injured pony.”
Yet if the result is as tight as a recent opinion poll by Research World International suggests, with candidate Museveni dropping to 51 per cent and Besigye growing to 32 per cent, a late surge by candidate Mbabazi, who had his highest showing with 12 per cent, could drag the incumbent below the threshold required to win in the first round, or, were he to take support from Besigye, leave the opposition leader ruing the failed talks to front a joint opposition candidate in the race.
The current campaign has been characterised by tension, recruitment of militia by the police and opposition groups, as well as sporadic outbreaks of violence between rival supporters.
The conventional wisdom is that the fear factor brought on by the possibility of violence undermines voter turnout, which works in favour of the incumbent, but this is not always the case.
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For instance, despite being generally peaceful, the 2011 elections had a lower turnout than both 2006 and 2001, which were both characterised by widespread election-related violence.
The heavy deployment of security officials in Luweero, central Uganda, during a parliamentary by-election in 2014 did not stop a large turnout of voters who voted in an opposition candidate in an area the NRM government claims as its spiritual home.
Nevertheless, the threat of violence and its impact on electoral choices cannot be ruled out. In the aftermath of attacks on opposition supporters last year, both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International issued reports warning that the incidents were undermining the possibility of a free and fair election.
With the recent arrest of former intelligence co-ordinator Gen David Sejusa for attending opposition rallies and making partisan comments, and with army chief Gen Katumba Wamala making rare public comments on the elections, it remains to be seen what impact the atmosphere will have on voter turnout and electoral choice.
When Norbert Mao turned up for nomination to run as a parliamentary candidate last year, he was told he was not a registered voter, despite running for president in 2011, governing the northern district of Gulu and being a two-term MP. It transpired that Mao had not registered for a national ID or updated his records in the voters’ register, which had then been retired in favour of a newer database.
It is not clear how many people share a similar fate but many are holding their breath over the mechanics of the process when voting day arrives. The Electoral Commission rolled out a biometric voter identification system with only a few weeks to the polls and is frantically trying to teach its officials how to use it. If all goes to plan, it should be able to catch voters trying to cast ballots more than once or in more than one location but if the system develops glitches, as happened in Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana and elsewhere, it could spark confusion or worse.
At least 2.5 million new national IDs remain uncollected according to the NRM which has been urging its supporters to collect the pieces of plastic, and many voters still don’t know what they need to carry with them to the polling stations or where to go, for that matter.
“The credibility of the outcome will be determined by the process,” a Western donor, whose country is among those that have funded the Electoral Commission in a basket fund that was recently pulled due to procurement concerns, said. “So far it is clear that there are many things that could and should have been done better and one can only hope that we do not see the whole thing crumble on Election Day. The consequences could be dire.”
Candidate Museveni has covered more ground than any other candidate, and in no small measure due to the facilities of incumbency which, for instance, allow him to fly across the country in a helicopter while his rivals push their cars out of the mud or rattle along on poor rural roads.
As a result the incumbent has visited more districts and addressed more rallies than any other candidate, according to figures from the NRM campaign team, but it is what happens when a candidate moves on to the next district that might matter more.
Here, officials from both campaigns admit that Besigye’s campaign rallies have often been more animated, especially as he picks on very local grievances to criticise the government. One pollster, this newspaper was told, returned to a town in West Nile region and found that support for Besigye had grown by over 15 percentage points after he addressed a rally there. However, unlike the NRM candidate, the opposition leader often lacks the teams to follow up and maintain that support.
“Besigye is like an air force commander who carpet bombs a place into submitting to his message,” said a source who has worked closely with Besigye on previous campaigns, but is not working on the current one, told The EastAfrican. “However, without infantry to go in after the carpet bombing, he is unable to hold the territory” which often slips back into the hands of NRM when its grassroots mobilisers turn up to pick up the pieces.
Several researchers have documented the role of patronage and the power of incumbency in ensuring regime survival, and Uganda is no exception. In the run-up to the campaigns, the government agreed to increase the number of parliamentary constituencies and districts, a guaranteed vote winner.
In a paper analysing the 2011 election, Elliott Green, a development studies lecturer at the London School of Economics found that more voters in new districts and constituencies voted for candidate Museveni than the national average.
Similarly, in a campaign where one interchangeably wears the hat of candidate and incumbent, President Museveni has made policy pronouncements, from new road to rural electrification projects and promotions of police officers, which are bound to swing support in decisive areas.
Whatever the opposition promises, the NRM candidate can counter-promise and point to his track record. “Whatever they promise we can match,” a Cabinet minister told this newspaper. “The state is the state.”
Viability of change
Ugandans go to the polls to choose between a government they have known for 30 years, and one that promises a better future. It is the proverbial choice between the devil you know and the angel you don’t. For the opposition to stand a chance, enough Ugandans must be willing to risk whatever they have currently for a better future.