Ugandans voted on Thursday, Feb. 18, but the presumed outcome, in which President Yoweri Museveni will extend his 30-year rule for yet another five-year term, may not completely reflect the love many Ugandan voters harbor for their incumbent regime. While ruling party rallies across the country featured fights for sodas, T-shirts and cash handouts, opposition candidate retired colonel Kizza Besigye, the President’s one-time bush-war doctor, at virtually every rally was showered with gifts of chicken, goats and money by his supporters.
At the time of writing, Museveni had a clear lead with a comfortable 61 percent of votes counted, with the main opposition candidate and the three-time runner-up, Besigye, trailing him with an estimated 32 percent of votes. The former prime minister and long-time regime insider Amama Mbabazi, whose candidacy shaped much of the national discourse and the regime’s strategy over the past two years, polled a mere 2 percent. Going by the results, one may assume that indeed little has changed from 2011, when the incumbent defeated Besigye, 68 percent to 26 percent.
But several events suggest that the regime is all but confident of the popular support its polling numbers suggest. These include the repeated arrests of opposition candidate Besigye before, on, and after polling day, the shutdown of social media platforms since the opening of polling stations, and the teargassing and sealing off of the leading opposition party’s offices in a Kampala suburb, where heavily armed security forces were seen shooting live ammunition while other anticipated hotspots witnessed martial security presence and live fire.
This intense projection of coercive power in the face of an electoral victory does not come as a surprise but is the result of changing dynamics underlying the continued rule of the National Resistance Movement (NRM) – Museveni’s party. The key to understanding these processes is the internal and external erosion of the NRM’s traditional base of support.
As Perrot et al.’s analysis of the 2011 elections shows, Museveni and the NRM’s victories in previous elections highlighted primarily electoral rather than political and ideological support. Pro-NRM votes did not necessarily imply a recognition of the regime’s legitimacy, but rather the relative weakness and division of the opposition, and the successful projection of the NRM’s power. One indication of this fact was illustrated by the ‘Walk to work’ protests, which emerged soon after the 2011 elections.
What changed in 2016? While economic development was an increasingly central issue after the 2011 elections and the protests, public debate during most of Museveni’s fourth term in office revolved around future succession of the president. The question of who will lead after Museveni’s decades in office led to prominent party members defecting from the NRM, which in turn crystallized the internal challenges to the NRM’s decades-long, near-hegemonic rule.
The NRM, which got its start as a rebel group in Uganda’s bush war of the early 1980s, took control of the country in 1986 and successfully ruled as authoritarians for 10 years. But the NRM never managed to transform into a functional, cohesive political party in a pluralist system after the reintroduction of multiparty politics in 2005. Signs of eroding party cohesion manifested in chaotic and violent party primaries in 2010, the expulsion of ‘rebel MPs’ who publicly challenged the president’s leadership and the party line in 2013, as well as an emboldened parliament, and bickering and infighting in the ranks of government and party bigwigs.
Nowhere was the growing tension within the NRM more evident than in the defections of two veteran regime stalwarts. Coordinator for Intelligence Services Gen. David Sejusa’s open criticism of the alleged grooming of the president’s son for succession contained in a letter led to a 10-day shutdown of two media houses, a grand military reshuffle. and shone a public light on discontent and divisions in the military, considered the bearer of the moral superiority of the party and its original, militant organization. Second, the demise of the former powerful prime minister, NRM secretary general and long-time presidential confidant Amama Mbabazi in response to his presidential ambitions rendered rifts and divisions surrounding the succession question within the ruling establishment an undeniable fact .
In the lead-up to the elections, all candidates were aware that only by garnering support from young people, who constitute at least 6.4 million voters, could anyone win the vote. Uganda has the second youngest population in the world, with 78 percent of its citizens under the age of 30. Unlke their parents and grandparents, who lived through the horrors of rule by Idi Amin and Milton Obote, the NRM’s traditional liberation argument – “we brought peace and stability” – falls flat with young voters who have never known any rule but Museveni’s. Uganda’s youth bulge also exaggerates development pressures: between 62 percent and 83 percent of young people are reported to be unemployed, despite great advances in access to education in their lifetimes.
While the NRM stuck with its standard strategy of using patronage and cash handouts to garner votes, these handouts may be too little and too costly in the long run given rapid population growth. Moreover, Ugandans who observed the relative success of the 2011 walk-to-work protests, now have a heightened sense of possibility of that the NRM could be defeated through popular uprising.
The carrots of cash handouts and patronage were coupled with mighty sticks. The NRM’s promise of continued stability came with the inverse threat of severe instability and disastrous consequences were it to be dislodged from power. The president warned voters that lack of support for NRM candidates in parliamentary and local elections may deny their constituencies access to government resources and service delivery, implying that he ‘owns all the money in Uganda.’ While use of repressive force has occurred during the campaign and election period, it is the threat of widespread violence and instability, and the symbolic representation of the state security system’s potency, that is used to illustrate the potential costs arising from supporting the opposition, coercing voters into electoral support.
Central to the symbolic projection of potential violence and instability in the 2016 election cycle were the so-called “crime preventers,” a group of civilians trained under the command of a militarized, partisan police force that was responsible for disruptions and clashes at some opposition rallies and hundreds of arbitrary arrests over the past months. The regime inflated the numbers of the “crime preventers,” suggesting that they numbered 11 million , in order to convey the overwhelming dominance of the existent political order. Closer to election day, a mosaic of claims designed to cause voter anxiety and fear came out, one after another: the police chief allegedly talked of arming the crime preventers and stated how the regime was not ready to hand over power to the opposition “to destabilize the peace which we fought for”; the ruling party secretary general threatened rural voters that government would kill their children if they were to protest in Kampala, and television showed a large delivery of armored vehicles and riot gear for police. All of this was topped off by the release of a video showcasing the combat readiness of the Special Forces Command headed by the president’s son.
Events on the day after the polls showed that the regime will not shy away from translating these threats into action in the weeks to come should Besigye — who has for months called for a campaign of ‘defiance’ — and his supporters take to the streets to challenge the results of an election they deny any credibility. By besieging and arresting opposition candidates and firing upon their supporters before any such protest materializes, the regime stays true to its tactics of pre-emptive strikes. If mere attempts to publicly challenge authorities on irregularities are met with overwhelming state violence, Ugandans will think thrice whether seeking to exercise their democratic right to protest is worth the potential cost.
UPDATE: On Saturday, February 20 at 4pm local time, the Electoral Commission officially declared Museveni as the winner of the elections, with 60.7 % of the votes. Opposition candidate Kiiza Besigye won 35.3% of the votes, and Amama Mbabazi 1.43%.
Anna Reuss is a PhD candidate at the Universities of Ghent and Antwerp, and works as a freelance risk analyst.