Uganda 2016: Museveni's Troubled Victory

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni at a press conference at his home in Rwakitura.
Yoweri Museveni, pictured on February 21 at a press conference at his home in Rwakitura, Uganda, was re-elected as Uganda's president after 30 years in power, but the results may raise more questions than answers. ISAAC KASAMANI/AFP/Getty Images

Sixty percent of the poll sounds like a convincing victory in any election. However, for Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni—who won in 2011 with 68 percent of the vote and who was declared the winner of Thursday's elections with 60.8 percent—it might look like something of a rebuff from an electorate that is growing tired after 30 years of his rule. Moreover, as we write, the full results are yet to be announced and some estimates suggest that Museveni's share could fall further still.

Meanwhile, the 35 percent secured so far by the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye —which is likely to rise to 36 or 37 percent when all polling stations are counted—clearly represents a strong support base. Besigye was standing for the fourth time in a contest where many Ugandans believed that Museveni would be declared the winner whatever happened and in which the playing field was clearly skewed towards the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM).

In the summer of 2015, it seemed that Besigye could be out of electoral politics: He had said he would not stand again after a series of elections that he still denounces as fraudulent, and which international observers have criticized as deeply unequal. At the same time, many were focused on the entry of Amama Mbabazi—the former prime minister and NRM insider who had decided to stand against Museveni on a promise of change—and excited by the possibility that this might split the NRM. However, Mbabazi failed to attract this anticipated support and, once campaigning began, it was clear that it was Besigye—coming back as the presidential candidate for the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC)—who was attracting support from those who wanted change.

In early December 2015, opinion polls put Besigye at around 27 percent of the vote; by late January, there were huge crowds turning out at his rallies, chanting "One Uganda, one people!" and waving his two-fingered salute. He was rising in the polls. In a political culture where money tends to flow downwards from candidates to voters, people were rushing to donate money to Besigye's campaign. While yellow NRM shirts were given away free at rallies, people were willingly paying 20,000 Ugandan shillings ($6) to buy blue FDC shirts. Meanwhile, the crowds at Mbabazi's poorly organized rallies were thin, and he has taken less than 2 percent of the votes.

Besigye has reasserted his position as the face of the opposition and so far has secured 10 percent more of the vote than he did in 2011. Once again, the opposition has denounced the results, alleging fraud. In addition to some polling stations in opposition areas opening late, which disenfranchised many voters, the electoral commission declared Museveni the winner without counting the results from 1,687 polling stations, many of which are in Besigye strongholds. Allegations of rigging aside, even Besigye's official 35 percent is impressive given that he was once again playing on very uneven ground.

The campaign saw less of the direct violence against Besigye and prominent activists than there was in previous elections, when leaders were beaten, arrested and dragged through courts on trumped up charges. This time, Besigye was mostly able to campaign, although in the last week he has been repeatedly detained by the police, while his supporters were tear-gassed and one of his final rallies disrupted. This is not to say that the campaigns were free of violence: Party activists and agents across the country were threatened, and sometimes physically attacked or arrested, while Mbabazi's security chief disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Uganda's Crime Preventers, a community policing initiative, was widely accused of intimidation, although it may ultimately have been more important as a constant and looming threat.

There was also extensive intimidation of a different kind, as NRM campaigners promised development if communities supported the party's candidates and threatened that projects would be denied if an area voted for the opposition. Many voters were also warned that an opposition victory would bring war and a military takeover—no idle threat in a country with a long history of military coups and vicious conflicts.

Money was also poured into the NRM campaign: Museveni spent almost 12 times more than Besigye and Mbabazi on his campaign between November and December 2015, according to a civil society report in January. NRM candidates at every level had access to resources that FDC and other opposition parties could only dream of: vehicles, fuel, public address systems, posters, stickers, flags. In a country where much campaigning happens at a very local level—with candidates driving around villages, talking to small groups, and with voters ferried to larger rallies in town—money really matters.

Money also matters in an even more direct way: Cash handouts to voters, while illegal, are common and often very obvious. Given this context, the results raise questions for Museveni's future—but also for Besigye and other opposition parties and politicians. For Museveni, whose resounding 2011 victory seemed like an endorsement, this reduced poll result will raise questions over how long he can continue.

There are some ominous signs for him. In the west of the country, long the NRM heartland, campaigning NRM parliamentary candidates willingly tolerated the shouting of pro-Besigye slogans at their rallies. In the north, where the NRM invested heavily in trying to win over opposition voters, Museveni failed to consolidate the electoral gains he made in 2011. And in Buganda, the economic and political heart of the country, both the crowds on the street and the poll results suggest that change is becoming a more compelling message than Museveni's campaign slogan of "Steady Progress".

The president also faces a dilemma: It seems that he sincerely believes that he is the only person who can prevent Uganda from falling back into the violence of the 1970s and 1980s, but if he is to stand again the constitution will have to be changed, as by 2021 he will be over the maximum age (75 years old) for a presidential candidate. But if he tries to do that, will those around him think this worth the expense and the international opprobrium that are the costs of such efforts?

The election result also raises questions for the opposition. With a growing population of young people who do not remember the early 1980s, the demand for change seems likely to become ever stronger, but nothing much unites the opposition beyond this desire. Besigye's FDC has shown itself prone to local factionalism; so has the Democratic Party, Uganda's oldest political party, whose supporters seem to have largely voted for Besigye at a national level, even though the leadership had announced its support for Mbabazi. If Besigye seeks to contest for a fifth time he may also face increasing criticism for having overstayed—although this argument is undermined the more his vote creeps up, and the more he is arrested.

Whether the opposition will have the cohesion to act effectively in parliament is unclear; while Besigye may have won a third of the national vote, the FDC has a weak presence in the National Assembly. Besigye's sheer courage and a groundswell of discontent with the status quo have earned him a significant popular vote, but there is little space for him to use that mandate. For Uganda, these elections have raised more questions than they have answered for both sides of the political divide.

Nic Cheeseman, associate professor in African politics at the University of Oxford (@fromagehomme), Gabrielle Lynch, associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick (@gabriellelynch6), and Justin Willis, professor of modern African history at the University of Durham, are part of an Economic and Social Research Council-funded research project (ES/L002345/1) on the impact of elections in Uganda, Kenya and Ghana.