This year’s presidential elections in Uganda were seen as the most competitive yet for the country’s long-time incumbent Yoweri Museveni. They nonetheless look set to extend his 30-year reign, while his leading opposition rival, Kizza Besigye, has been arrested for the third time in a week.
Tensions spiked just days before the vote as police and opposition supporters clashed in Kampala, leaving one dead and many others injured. Museveni later declared he would “smash” anyone who threatened national security. Besigye retorted that the regime was “panicking”.
Voting got off to a rocky start on Thursday, with severe delays at many polling stations around the capital city, an opposition stronghold. Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter were also blocked early in the day while news spread that 150,000 security officers, including military troops, were deployed across the country.
Even as opposition supporters still held out hope that Museveni would be forced into an unprecedented second round of voting, it was difficult to avoid the more cynical view that this was a “sham” election, the latest in a long string of state-controlled exercises in democratic pageantry.
Fifth time around
This was Museveni’s fifth presidential election since his National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power in 1986. Some have argued that repeated elections can feed into a virtuous circle, consolidating democratic values and promoting crucial electoral reforms. But in Uganda the reverse scenario seems to be at work. Successive elections have seen little to no significant electoral reform; instead, Museveni has repeatedly deployed – and perfected – a varied set of strategies to ensure victory.
The most significant electoral reform under the NRM came with a 2005 referendum that saw Ugandans vote to reintroduce multiparty politics after nearly two decades of a ‘no-party’ system. However, the simultaneous removal of presidential term limits dimmed opposition prospects from the start. Efforts to secure additional electoral reforms – and in particular a more independent electoral commission – again failed ahead of this year’s polls.
Only days before Thursday’s vote, the long-serving chairman of the electoral commission condemned Besigye’s “defiance” politics and also implied that opposition politicians – the so-called “doomsday advocates” – were planning to stuff ballot boxes.
The flip side of these failed reform efforts is the NRM’s recycling of tried and true election-winning tactics. As in the lead-up to previous elections, patronage has remained a key electoral strategy in 2016. In September 2015 parliament approved 23 new districts, a ploy to win goodwill through the promise of more central government funding and lucrative jobs in local areas.
Starting as early as 2014, Museveni also championed a set of election-driven government programmes. These included the takeover of agricultural extension services by the army under the banner of “Operation Wealth Creation” as well as the distribution of start-up loans through a Youth Livelihood Programme, which was managed by the NRM-controlled National Youth Council. Election campaigns are themselves a “harvest” season for voters – many people are drawn to NRM rallies by the promise of free t-shirts, drinks or a chance to see their favourite pop musician. All of these expenses are covered using state resources and contributions from a select set of wealthy donors.
Another hallmark of Ugandan elections is the recruitment of pro-NRM militia or “patriotic” groups. Over the past 18 months, the inspector general of police, Kale Kayihura, has assembled a small army known as the “Crime Preventers” dispersed across the country. A sort of partisan vigilante force, the Crime Preventers have been condemned for breaking up opposition rallies and for conducting a roll call of voters’ political allegiances. Many also fear these militia could engage in targeted post-election violence.
While the opposition has also recruited its Power-10 groups, ten-person groups of grassroots campaigners based in villages across the country, they were dwarfed by the Crime Preventers.
Pulling out the stops
The media was, as ever, a persistent target in this election. The Committee to Protect Journalists has condemned violence against journalists as well as more subtle intimidation of editors through periodic cautions and threatening phone calls. One rural radio station was closed in January this year after airing an interview with former prime minister-turned-rival presidential candidate Amama Mbabazi. Two newspaper editors were also arrested for publishing pictures allegedly showing the body of Christopher Aine, the head of security for the Mbabazi campaign who disappeared in December and is feared to have died in police custody.
Then there are the security forces, a crucial fallback for the government. The police and military are loyal to Museveni. They were involved in widespread electoral violence around both the 2001 and 2006 elections. While the 2011 elections were more peaceful, post-election protests led to a deadly police crackdown. Throughout this year’s campaigns, police have been accused of holding up a double standard when enforcing electoral rules. There are also fears of more post-election trouble. Uganda’s police force recently ordered new riot gear while a military spokesperson declared that, should Besigye contest the election results, they will “remove him from the field”.
In the end, the hostile electoral environment has not stopped the opposition from gaining ground. Mbabazi’s campaign, once seen as a serious threat, foundered, but Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change party has run a smooth operation, supported by a strengthened network of local party structures. His growing popularity has also fuelled soaring expectations; this is not enough, though, to counter the powerful Museveni election machine.
The main risk now is violence. A bungled election may well leave opposition supporters convinced the NRM stole their votes, while regime supporters leave no doubt as to how they will respond. This was made clear by Kale Kayihura’s recent pronouncement that the police could not “hand over power to the opposition to destabilise the peace we fought for”.