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10 key issues where Uganda election will be won or lost going by recent trends

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This election is President Yoweri Museveni’s to lose. But with recent opinion polls showing Dr Kizza Besigye gaining ground, we explore some of the issues that will determine the outcome. PHOTOS | FILE 

By DANIEL K. KALINAKI

Posted  Sunday, February 7   2016 at  10:15

In Summary

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.

  • Voter turnout: This will determine not just who wins election, but also the legitimacy of the government.
  • Demographics: Whoever can get the young people on their side will gain a serious advantage.
  • Voter blocs: None of the three leading contenders is able to win a solid geographic bloc.
  • Money: If poverty is the question then to many voters money is the answer.
  • Two horses and a pony: A late surge by Candidate Mbabazi could lead to a run-off.
  • Fear factor: Fear factor brought on by possibility of violence undermines voter turn-out.
  • Election mechanics: The credibility of the outcome will be determined by the process.
  • Campaign mechanics: Candidate Museveni has covered more ground than rivals, but it is what happens afterwards that matters.
  • Incumbency: Whatever the opposition promises, the NRM candidate can counter promise.
  • Viability of change: It is the proverbial choice between the devil you know and the angel you don’t.

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.

Voter turnout

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.

Demographics

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. 

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