Calm Holds as Ugandans Cast Votes

A Ugandan votes at a polling station on the shore of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Kampala, in the country's first multiparty election in 25 years.
A Ugandan votes at a polling station on the shore of Lake Victoria, on the outskirts of Kampala, in the country's first multiparty election in 25 years. (By Karel Prinsloo -- Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 24, 2006

MUKONO, Uganda, Feb. 23 -- With a camera swinging from his neck, Godfry Mutwalo, 35, a self-described security agent for the ruling party, scanned the village square where his fellow Ugandans quietly voted Thursday for president and parliament in their first multiparty elections in 25 years.

"So, you voted?" Mutwalo asked a woman who was marking a ballot, flashing her an enthusiastic thumbs up -- the symbol of the ruling party.

The woman, Justine Maaso, a 34-year-old hairdresser, frowned. She then carefully marked her choice on a ballot in the bottom of a large plastic bowl, used to ensure privacy.

"Ah, it's my secret," she said at the polling station in this politically divided market town about 20 miles east of the capital, Kampala. "I don't want to quarrel."

Election day in Uganda historically has been fraught with charges of violence, vote-rigging and intimidation, not unlike in many African countries that are struggling to make the full transition to multiparty politics. But after a tense campaign, voting was largely peaceful Thursday, with some reports of irregularities, as thousands of Ugandan and foreign observers monitored polling stations across the country of 27 million.

Opinion polls put President Yoweri Museveni in the lead. His top challenger in the five-candidate race is his former ally and doctor, Kizza Besigye, 49. Final results are due by Saturday, and if no candidate wins more than 50 percent, a runoff will be held.

Reports circulated that hundreds of people arrived at the polls to find their votes already cast or their names missing from the rolls. People also complained that government agents, such as Mutwalo, were crowding polling stations and campaigning, a violation of regulations according to the country's electoral board and opposition leaders.

"There's room for suspicion here," said Nandujja Nivatiti, a monitor with the Ugandan Human Rights Network, noting the incident involving Mutwalo. "It's important for citizens to be vigilant. Everyone has to know that elections don't have to be filled with this skullduggery."

The election was round two for Museveni and Besigye, who fought a bitter contest in 2001 that turned violent and was filled with allegations of fraud. Soon after, Besigye left the country, saying his life was in danger.

Museveni had promised to abide by the constitution, which limited the chief executive to two terms. But he changed his mind, and parliament changed the constitution on his behalf.

When Besigye returned in November to launch his second campaign for the presidency, Museveni jailed him on what Besigye's supporters and foreign diplomats said were trumped-up charges. Besigye was eventually released on bail.

Museveni warned on state television on the eve of the race that without him the country could return to the brutality and misrule common under leaders Idi Amin and Milton Obote.

"Elections are no joke," Museveni said. "It is a matter of life and death. If you decide wrongly, you will bear the consequences. It has happened in the past. It can happen again."

Some Ugandans said they were willing to take that risk. At a polling station in Mukono, a 24-year-old college student said he woke up early to vote for Besigye but found that someone had voted in his name, even though the ballot carried his photograph.

"I'm fed up with this," the red-faced student said, declining to give his name for fear of reprisals. "They stole my constitutional right. I can't help but feel angry."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company