Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s success in Thursday’s election is widely predicted, but the violence in pursuit of victory that characterised previous polls has scarcely been seen.
After three decades in office, Museveni and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) are eyeing a fifth term for one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, but have little need to bludgeon opponents who can be overpowered with money and reach instead.
“The NRM is attempting to run a clean campaign, and that’s something new,” said Angelo Izama, a political commentator.
Elections in 2006 and 2011 were marred by violent, and occasionally deadly, street protests and the liberal use of tear gas by heavy-handed police.
Campaigning for Thursday’s election so far has been largely peaceful despite leading opposition candidates, Kizza Besigye and Amama Mbabazi, posing the strongest challenge yet.
Monday was an exception, with police saying at least one person was killed as they fought running battles with opposition supporters. Opposition politicians said three people were shot dead, and Besigye was briefly detained.
The electoral playing field, however, is pitched at such a steep gradient that challengers are beaten before they begin.
“Elections in Uganda are bought more than rigged,” said Henry Muguzi, national coordinator of the Alliance for Election Campaign Finance Monitoring, a civil society watchdog.
Muguzi calculates the NRM party and all its candidates spent $35 million (32 million euros) on campaigning in November and December, equivalent to 87 percent of all party election spending.
He says Museveni spent $8 million on his campaign in the same period, nearly 12 times the amount spent by all the other seven presidential candidates put together.
Among the tools at Museveni’s disposal is a helicopter leased from a Kenyan businessman that previously helped carry Tanzania’s John Magufuli to victory in the neighbouring nation’s October poll.
While Museveni flies over their heads, other candidates are forced to drive Uganda’s frequently potholed and congested roads to reach far-flung voters in 290 constituencies, across a country roughly the size of Britain.
“Museveni is in a league of his own,” said Muguzi. “The level of spending of the ruling party is insane.”
Muguzi lists cash giveaways, handouts of farming equipment or party goodies and “voter hospitality” where voters are invited to “eat and drink until you can drink no more”.
Like other observers of Ugandan politics, Muguzi says government money is regularly deployed to party ends, especially during elections.
“The government raids the national treasury and diverts public resources for campaigns,” said Muguzi. “The party and the government are fused, you cannot separate them.”
That fusion extends to the military, a one-time rebel army that commands an outsized proportion of the national budget, with uniformed men and women widely seen as NRM partisans.
When opposition rallies come to the capital, armoured water cannon trucks and police officers appear at a traffic-clogged junction by the electoral commission headquarters.
‘Localisation of intimidation’
Every day pick-ups race around Kampala ferrying police, soldiers and feared red beret troops, and every evening gangs of so-called “crime preventers” – a hastily-recruited pro-government neighbourhood watch scheme – jog through the streets chanting slogans.
“The threat of violence is pervasive,” said Gabrielle Lynch, a researcher at Britain’s Warwick university. The NRM’s broad and deep reach results in a “localisation of intimidation”, he said, with people knowing a vote against the ruling party can mean the withholding of government funds in the future.
When polling day comes, said Lynch, “you don’t need to rig the election.”
Museveni has always played patronage politics, preferring to buy off opponents rather than fight them, thus maintaining the peace and stability that is a key element of his re-election message. “Uganda has refined corruption as a peace-building strategy,” said Izama.
But demographics are working against the old guard. Most Ugandan voters have never know any leader but Museveni: the country’s median age is less than 16, while its president is at least 71. Disenchantment with politicians, their politics and the faltering economy is increasing.
Voter turnout has followed a downward trajectory with nearly three-quarters of eligible voters casting a ballot in 1996, during the country’s first-ever competitive election, but only three-fifths bothering to turn out in 2011.
Museveni’s share of those votes has also declined but most 2016 polls give him more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a second round run-off. He won his last five-year term in 2011 with 68 percent.
Few outside of the opposition’s political camps and urban strongholds believe Museveni and his NRM can be beaten.
“The opposition parties can’t win,” said Muguzi. “They are wasting their time.”