For all the corruption that has festered on Museveni’s watch, many Ugandans wonder whether another leader could do any better — particularly since his two main challengers also have deep roots in NRM politics. Museveni, Mbabazi and Besigye all fought against the Obote regime in the “bush war” of the 1980s. (That conflict was launched — ironically — after Museveni claimed the 1980 elections, won by Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress, had been rigged). Besigye, formerly Museveni’s personal doctor, fell out with the regime in 2001 after accusing the NRM of veering “incorrigibly off course.” Mbabazi, once considered the second most powerful man in government, defected in 2014.
Although it has drawn some support from the urban middle class, the Mbabazi campaign has failed to live up to early speculation that it might draw a critical mass of voters away from the NRM. A January poll conducted by the Kampala-based firm Research World International, estimated Mbabazi’s support at only 12 percent, trailing both the president’s (51 percent) and Besigye’s (32 percent). Although these figures suggest that a runoff, mandated if no candidate receives a majority of the votes, is possible, few Ugandans believe this to be likely. To start, the NRM has a far more enduring brand image, a more effective grass-roots apparatus and far deeper pockets than its rivals. According to a January report by the Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring, which tracked candidate spending in November and December, Museveni spent 12 times more in the 16 districts surveyed than the other seven candidates combined. The report also documents systematic voter bribery, including handouts of cash, food, hoes, seeds and other agricultural staples, though it notes this was prevalent “across political parties.”
The impartiality of Uganda’s Electoral Commission, whose leadership is appointed by Museveni, is also in doubt. Independent observers have questioned its ability to conduct a free and fair election. However, Jotham Taremwa, an Electoral Commission spokesman, calls fears of rigging “unfounded.” He insists that new biometric voting technology that uses fingerprints to verify voters’ identities will help prevent irregularities. But electoral watchdogs note that the machines, which only arrived in the country last month, have never been piloted. Crispy Kaheru, coordinator of the Kampala-based Citizens’ Coalition for Electoral Democracy in Uganda, says that similar biometric kits have malfunctioned during polls in several African countries, including neighboring Kenya, where they had undergone far more extensive testing.
As doubts linger over its credibility, the vote and its aftermath are shaping up to be tense. Last month, the U.S. State Department expressed concern over “an electoral climate of fear and intimidation,” characterized by reports of police obstructing opposition rallies and intimidating media, as well as the disappearance of Mbabazi’s head of security. (The former prime minister’s team alleges he was abducted by police last December.) The opposition, meanwhile, is encouraging supporters to watch out for possible rigging. Solome Nakaweesi, the Mbabazi campaign’s chief of staff, said their team has instructed its supporters to speak out if they suspect their votes have been improperly counted. But, she said, the campaign will not advise them to “take to the streets.” Besigye’s camp, however, has been explicit in its plans to protest the results. Ibrahim Ssemujju, a member of Parliament and spokesman for Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change, told Al Jazeera America the FDC has been mobilizing volunteers to monitor polling stations and “fight for the will of people to prevail.” Ssemujju insists the network, dubbed “Power 10,” will not be armed, nor instructed to use violence, but rather will forge a campaign of civil disobedience that is better organized and more entrenched than the Walk to Work movement of 2011.
“Should the elections be rigged, we are asking the population to rise up,” he said. “That is all we are saying.”
Ugandan authorities, however, appear unlikely to give much breathing room to a movement intent on disturbing public order. Calling Power 10 a “militia,” Bantariza, the government spokesman, said police are prepared to arrest anyone causing “insurrection.” Independent observers, meanwhile, worry that the so-called crime preventers might turn violent against election protesters. In a January speech, Kale Kayihura, the inspector general of police, suggested that the volunteers could legally be given guns “in case of war.” Although few envision Uganda descending into full-fledged armed conflict, many say the war of words by political actors has left the country on edge.