Crowds queued patiently in Jinja, a sleepy town on the shores of Lake Victoria, to vote in Uganda's third multi-party elections. Prospective voters remained at polling stations, which were often little more than open grassy spaces with a tree providing shade for election staff underneath trees Like many places in the country, voting materials were delivered late several hours late. But that didn't affect the determination of millions of Ugandans to register their vote, underlining an established belief in electoral democracy as the only method to decide the political future of the country.
On 18 February Yoweri Museveni's was re-elected as president with almost 61% of the vote, ending a dramatic few weeks that at times threatened the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) with a serious crisis. Ultimately, the party's spending power, control of government institutions – notably the security services – and enduring popularity in rural areas was enough to fight off a resurgent opposition campaign under the revitalised Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), led by Kizza Besigye. Museveni will remain a regional strongman, eagerly engaged by many international actors; for his part, Besigye re-emerged as the undisputed champion of anti-Museveni politics.
Six months ago it had all looked quite different when the early running was made by Amama Mbabazi, the former prime minister and founding member of the NRM. But Mbabazi's attempt to position himself as the NRM flag-bearer in 2014 precipitated an intra-party split, and led to his independent presidential candidacy. In the end his GoForward campaign only obtained 1.5% of the presidential vote, demonstrating that there are only two serious political positions in Uganda: for or against the NRM. This increasing political polarisation is a dangerous prospect.
Besigye's campaign focused on ousting Museveni and a generation of politicians seen as corrupt and self-serving by the increasingly young urban electorate – notably in the capital Kampala where Besigye won 65.75% of the presidential vote with Museveni a distant second on 31%. Many NRM ministers lost their parliamentary seats – an indictment of a movement that is increasingly failing to deliver on healthcare, education and jobs – an estimated 80% of Uganda's 15 to 24 year-olds are unemployed. If Besigye is to provide a credible alternative he must now move beyond his confrontational election-time rallies and other stunts and help the FDC build its national infrastructure, currently very thin at the village level, so it can compete with NRM outside of traditional urban strongholds.
Free(ish) but unfair
Although Museveni ultimately won quite comfortably there were moments of real danger, especially during the campaign and the 48-hour vote count. Many feared Kampala and other opposition-leaning areas would see Besigye's FDC supporters taking to the streets leading to scenes reminiscent of the 2011 "Walk to Work" protests, and a heavy-handed police response. An election-eve FDC rally in central Kampala was broken up by police with tear gas and one FDC supporter was killed – shot in the neck by anti-riot police with a rubber bullet. Further tensions grew early on election day when voting materials were delivered very late, mostly to polling stations in FDC strongholds. But this turned out to be due to poor planning – a further blow against the Electoral Commission's already weak credibility - and the voting period was extended until 19 February for those locations affected.
During the vote count, Besigye was detained by police and held at his home after he claimed to have discovered an NRM "rigging centre" in a private house. The FDC headquarters in Kampala was later stormed by police suspecting that the party was about to release its own vote tallies. Neither accusation was proven. When Besigye announced that he would go to the electoral commission to pick up an official version of the results he was immediately detained, taken to a rural police station and then returned home for a continuing period of house arrest.
The government had also prepared carefully, clearly anticipating opposition protests. For example, mobile network providers shut off Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp – social media tools through which opposition activists could coordinate their activities – at a critical moment, and the streets were flooded by a combination of regular army, military police, special forces and armed plainclothes individuals. As a consequence, Kampala mostly remained eerily quiet during and after the vote count.
The European Union Observation Mission found little to substantiate FDC's accusations that there was large-scale vote rigging on and around polling day. Nevertheless, its 20 February preliminary statement asserted that "enthusiasm for [the] democratic process [was] eclipsed by [an] atmosphere of intimidation and ruling party control of state resources." Localised ballot stuffing may well have occurred. But even without intimidation, with no legal spending limits on campaign finance, NRM had far deeper pockets than FDC or GoForward – a fundamental weakness with Uganda's democratic credentials.
Besigye's very creditable 35% poll will give the NRM pause for thought, not least about how much harder, and more costly, it may be to win the next elections in 2021. The constitution's ban on candidates over the age of 75 will have to be changed again to allow a by-then 76-year-old Museveni to stand. Another scenario is "the Mohoozi Project" – a much-debated dynastic transfer to his son – but this would be equally costly and further destabilise the NRM. Neither option is without major difficulties, but no genuine alternative candidate is currently apparent. In the meantime, Uganda's heavily patriarchal system of business and politics will likely increase – with proximity to the Museveni family of critical importance – since many now see this as the president's likely final term and the last chance to make personal relationships pay.
For the East and Central Africa regions, Museveni's no-fuss re-election will come as a relief. The campaign was a severe impediment to Uganda's ability to pursue its interests in a region where the president is seen as an experienced power broker. During the campaign, he became relatively disengaged in the negotiations over the political transition in Burundi, where he is officially the chief mediator from the East African Community. Additionally, both Juba and Khartoum will welcome Museveni's renewed focus as both players see him as vital in the implementation of the South Sudan Peace Agreement. Western embassies also continue to look to Uganda to reassert its influence in both theatres of conflict.
Besigye's 2016 performance has vindicated his FDC leadership, but both party and electoral reform are needed for a credible opposition challenge. The international community can assist by pushing hard for both reform tracks -- particularly in encouraging regulations on campaign spending and strengthening the electoral commission. Any tipping point that could reverse the NRM's demographic advantage is unlikely to occur for a few more years. For now, the FDC has been shown to be largely a party of urban protest, while the majority rural vote has been shown to be stubbornly in favour of Museveni's NRM.
Magnus Taylor is Horn of Africa Analyst at International Crisis Group, the independent conflict-prevention organisation.