Following Museveni’s electoral victory Michaela Collord asks: How much support does Uganda’s president really have? Michaela is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Oxford. This blog post was originally posted on the Presidential Power blog.
In Uganda, domestic and international observers are on the same page: last week’s elections were anything but free and fair.
Tensions were already riding high as voters headed to the polls on 18 February. Only days earlier, the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), was detained after a clash with police that left one opposition supporter dead. A country-wide deployment of up to 150,000 military and police officers only added to the sense of unease.
Voting itself got off to a rough start. Social media platforms and mobile money services were blocked from early in the day. Serious delays, especially around the opposition-leaning capital city, Kampala, and neighbouring districts fuelled frustrations. Many suspected a conscious effort to disenfranchise voters. Reports of further delays, incorrect ballot papers, and ballot stuffing also flowed in from across the country.
The Electoral Commission announced presidential election results on Saturday even though votes had yet to be tallied from over 1000 polling stations, allegedly located in opposition strongholds. The official results attribute 60 per cent of the votes to incumbent President Yoweri Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM), thereby extending his 30-year rule by another five years. The runner up and four-time challenger, Besigye, received 36 per cent of the vote while former-Prime-Minister-turned-Museveni-rival, Amama Mbabazi, who was once considered a potential threat, collected less than two per cent.
Besigye and the FDC criticised the polling process from the start, and resorted to a parallel vote-tallying exercise. Rumours that the FDC was on the verge of announcing its own version of the presidential election results prompted police to encircle the party headquarters and arrest a number party officials, including Besigye. To date, the beleaguered candidate has been arrested four times in eight days and is now under house arrest.
In response, Besigye released a statement denouncing a ‘creeping military coup’ while the FDC party President, Mugisha Muntu, flatly declared, ‘We believe that this was a stolen election. Absolutely.’ Museveni has dismissed these remarks as ‘rubbish,’ adding that ‘in the next five years the opposition will be wiped out. […] They are liars.’
International election observers are less dismissive of opposition concerns. The US, EU, and Commonwealth observer missions have all criticised the election proceedings with the US mission denouncing irregularities ‘that are deeply inconsistent with international standards and expectations for any democratic process.’
The profound mismanagement of the elections raises broader questions, namely how much support do Muesveni and the NRM actually have? What tools are needed to ensure Museveni retains his strong lead in the polls?
It is still highly likely—as suggested by pre-election opinion polls—that Museveni would win the elections even in the absence of any suspected electoral manipulation. As political analysts note, however, his electoral support rests on an increasingly precarious foundation; in many regions of the country, Museveni’s apparent popularity is not rooted in any deep-felt ideological attachment to the NRM but rather depends on the continued manipulation of the electoral playing field.
Winning through intimidation
The mounting security presence ahead of these elections has attracted considerable attention. Previous elections in Uganda, notably in 2001 and 2006, were marred by violence. While the 2016 polls have proved largely peaceful, the threat of state-orchestrated violence was—and still remains—pervasive.
The heavy military and police deployment ahead of elections was a clear sign of this threat, as was the pre-election recruitment of a vigilante force of ‘Crime Preventers’. While the opposition has also recruited its Power-10 group, this effort is dwarfed by the NRM Crime Preventers.
Statements from top military and police officials prior to the elections also sent a strong message. Days before the polls, the Inspector General of Police, Kale Kayihura, proclaimed that the police could not ‘hand over power to the opposition to destabilise the peace we fought for.’ Kayihura was referring to the NRM’s involvement in a five year insurgency before seizing power in 1986, thereby restoring stability across much of the country.
Following Thursday’s election, the intimidation has continued. Besigye’s rejection of the results and his calls for a ‘campaign of defiance’ have elicited a strong rebuke. Museveni did not mince words, warning that anyone who causes trouble would be put in a ‘deep freezer’, adding that ‘the whole army and police force are mobilised [to see] who will bring violence.’ Security personnel were indeed deployed around Kampala over the weekend, with the city in a state of eerie calm according to some residents.
The NRM has long claimed, in keeping with Kayihura’s statement, that it is the guardian of peace while the opposition brings only unrest. Perhaps doubting voters’ continued faith in this message, the pre-election deployment and clear warnings seemed designed to persuade voters that a Museveni win was both inevitable and the best way to ensure security—even if it meant security from a police crackdown. Besigye is now calling on supporters to protest his house arrest, but the continued deployment around Kampala suggest any street demonstration would come at a cost, as many learned during the post-election ‘walk to work’ protests in 2011.
Money, and lots of it
Intimidation aside, the NRM has continued to spend lavishly on elections while also promising coveted development projects in order to boost their vote margin.
In 2011, NRM election spending broke all records and fed into a post-election surge in inflation rates. This time around, Museveni again outspent his rivals by as much as twelve to one. His rallies were a chance to get free drinks and a T-shirt, or to see your favourite pop star.
Museveni also used a well-known claim – that a vote for the opposition was a wasted vote; only districts that vote Museveni get the government projects they require. Studies of voting trends in the 2011 elections suggest this argument helped Museveni to win back opposition strongholds, such as Teso sub-region in eastern Uganda as well as parts of northern Uganda.
An interesting twist in the 2016 campaigns came when opposition supporters started giving gifts—anything from petty cash to livestock—to support Besigye at his rallies. This was a symbolic coup for the opposition, and even prompted some staged gift-giving events at Museveni rallies. It also helped the cash-strapped opposition bankroll the campaign, raising in total 100m Ugandan shillings or roughly USD 30,000. But at the end of the day, that was a far cry from Musevein’s estimated seven million, gathered from a few wealthy donors.
Gaining an institutional advantage
The partisan Electoral Commission (EC) in Uganda is another bonus to Museveni. The long-time chair of the EC, Badru Kiggundu, has repeatedly condemned Besigye’s ‘defiance’ politics. On the eve of elections, he also implied that opposition politicians—the so-called ‘doomsday advocates’—were planning to stuff ballot boxes.The opposition has called for electoral reforms, not least to ensure an independent EC, but has remained largely unsuccessful.
The opposition has the right to petition the Supreme Court over the election results. Besigye took this route in 2001 and 2006 but, on both occasions, the Court declined to annul results while nevertheless admitting to election irregularities. Besigye’s own legal team, those who argued his case in the past, remain highly sceptical about the potential for the Court to rule in their favour this time, particularly in light of recent, partisan appointments to the bench. Even as Besigye acknowledges that his house arrest as well as the police surveillance of the FDC headquarters are undermining efforts to gather necessary documents and evidence.
The police are justifying Besigye’s house arrest in part through reference to the controversial Public Order Management Act, passed in the wake of the 2011 protests. They claim that should Besigye enter Kampala, this would lead to an unlawful procession and therefore they cannot allow him free movement.
What to make of the parliamentary election results
The recourse to intimidation, patronage, and institutional manipulation suggest uncertainty—even paranoia—about Museveni’s popularity in Uganda. Ensuring a wide margin of victory is important to retain the impression that the President is unshakable. But despite his tactics, Museveni has lost nine per cent of vote since 2011.
Results from the parliamentary election leave a mixed impression. The NRM has retained its huge majority in parliament, although final results have yet to be announced; however, because of Uganda’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the large seat share conceals a rather less impressive share of the vote (around 50 per cent for NRM parliamentary candidates in 2011).
One potential blow to the NRM in this election is the defeat of party bigwigs, including 19 ministers. Among them were several ‘historical’, NRM members whose support dates back to the 1980s war.
Museveni was quick to reject any suggestion that his ministers’ electoral defeat might reflect poorly on his government. Instead, he flipped the situation around, claiming it was a sign of a robust democracy.
While many ministers lost out, the three so-called ‘rebel’ MPs expelled from the NRM in the last parliament all bounced back as independents. They are among a growing cohort of independents elected to parliament, many of whom lean towards the NRM but lost out in the party primaries, which were marred by irregularities and allegations of vote rigging.
The opposition has suffered its own losses, with the FDC losing a number of veteran legislators. At the same time, though, the FDC as well as the Democratic Party gained new MPs from Northern Uganda, which swung in favour of the NRM in 2011, as well as western Uganda, an NRM stronghold.
Where to now?
This election has proved anything but conclusive. While Museveni and the NRM have declared a resounding victory, there is still tension in the streets. Ugandans will also be returning to the polls on Wednesday, 24 February, to vote for local councillors. With reports coming in that FDC members are being harassed and detained across the country, the outlook is not positive.
Beyond elections, though, Museveni and the NRM must confront the reality of their own fading support. They can, of course, continue with their strategies to tilt the field in their favour. Ultimately, however, they will need to find some way to appeal to Uganda’s growing population of young voters. Education and a job are what many voters want. So long as both remain in short supply, the NRM is in trouble.
 Mugushi Muntu speaking on NBS talk show, Uganda Decides, 22 February.