Uganda Election: Why it’s too early to rule out Kizza Besigye

Polls don’t register passion.

Kizza Besigye campaigning in Kabale. Credit: @kizzabesigye1.

Kizza Besigye campaigning in Kabale. Credit: @kizzabesigye1.

While most observers are predicting that Ugandans will vote to extend President Yoweri Museveni’s rule when they head to the ballot box on 18 February, the race may prove to be tighter than expected.

Yes, Museveni has continued his long tradition of vote-buying and spent 12 times more in November and December than his two closest challengers combined. Yes, opposition candidates and supporters have been intimidated, detained and even killed. And yes, the polls are pointing to another victory for the incumbent.

But, as journalist Joseph Odindo recently pointed out, “opinion polls do not measure sentiment and passion”. For all of Museveni’s advantages, he cannot pay people or scare them into being passionate about his campaign. And when Decision Day comes around, it could be passion that determines turnout, and turnout that determines the result.

[See: Podcast: Who will win Uganda’s 2016 elections?]

And when it comes to invoking passion, one candidate is performing heads and shoulders above the rest.

A different race

Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s main rival, already has a hat-trick of presidential defeats under his belt. Once a close ally of the president, Besigye broke ranks in 1999 and ran against Museveni in 2001, 2006 and 2011. His best performance came in 2006 when he garnered 37% of the vote, though all the elections have faced allegations of irregularities, fraud and electoral violence.

2016 will thus be Besigye’s fourth shot at a glory in a game he knows all too well. But as Museveni reaches 30 years in office, there may be something a little different in the air in this year’s campaign.

[See: Uganda’s 2016 elections: same same but different?]

According to reports, Besigye has attracted mammoth crowds across Uganda – and not just in his own traditional areas of support, but also in Museveni’s strongholds in the west. Even in the president’s home area of Rushere, Besigye surprised many when he pulled a huge crowd who came bearing gifts.

Furthermore, according to journalist Benon Herbert Oluka who has followed Besigye’s campaign across over 30 districts, many voters that say they will be supporting Museveni in the ballots nevertheless profess an admiration and affinity with the veteran opposition leader.

On the one hand, Besigye’s seemingly increased support could be the result of his actions since the February 2011 elections. In particular, he gained a new badge of honour when he took a leading role in the famous Walk to Work protests in April 2011. A response to the rising costs of living, these demonstrations saw thousands of frustrated Ugandans take to the streets. The government hit back, resulting in a handful of deaths, scores of injuries, and hundreds of arrests.

For his troubles, Besigye himself was tear-gassed, shot in the hand, and detained. But through these protests, his image shifted from that of a man obsessed with unseating Museveni to one ready to fight side-by-side with ordinary Ugandans.

On the campaign trail, Besigye has further enhanced this reputation, addressing countless rallies in rural areas in a bid to eat away at Museveni’s support base. This has made him better known – and often better liked – amongst more voters than ever.

On the other hand, it is not just Besigye’s image that has changed since 2011, but Uganda itself. As more years go by, the proportion of Uganda’s population that never witnessed the destructive regimes that preceded Museveni gets bigger and bigger.

And now, with around 78% of Ugandans below the age of 30, those who have only ever lived under Museveni and yearn for change could be reaching critical mass. Moreover, this youthful desire to end the status quo gains an added weight when taking into account the fact that youth unemployment could be as high as 83%.

Get out the vote

This youth bulge combined with scant opportunities could be why Besigye boasts a devoted, almost cult-like following amongst some younger Ugandans. And this enthusiasm could be decisive at the ballot box.

In 2011, voter turnout notably plunged from over 70% in the previous two elections to just 59%. This seemed to reflect the electorate’s frustration with the political system and mistrust of the polls. But this time around, if Besigye is able to translate his increased prominence across the country and the vigour of his young supporters into effective voter mobilisation, this year’s race could look very different.

Although Museveni will do his best to ensure his supporters come out to vote – in the same way he has reportedly ferried people around Uganda to attend his rallies – high turnout on Thursday could signal good news for Besigye.

This is not to suggest that opposition supporters will not find it difficult to mobilise people to come out and vote on the day. The threat of intimidation lies beneath the surface and many Ugandans are fearful despite Museveni’s assurances at the presidential debate on 13 February that the vote would be peaceful.

[See: 6 things we learned from Uganda’s first presidential debate]

[See: Uganda: The opposition’s missed opportunity in parliamentary and local elections]

In some ways, Besigye’s campaign may have had an easier ride this year thanks to the candidacy of former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. The addition of another prominent presidential rival might have split the ruling National Resistance Movement’s (NRM) attention, giving Besigye a freer campaign than he would have otherwise.

But intimidation has still played a large part in the race. Mbabazi’s top security aide disappeared in December with rumours of his assassination rife, while most recently, on 15 February, one Ugandan was killed and many others injured as the police fired bullets and teargas in clashes with Besigye supporters. Worrying, this could be a glimpse of what the state machinery is ready to do should things not go according to plan on 18 February.

Another factor that could prove crucial in how things pan out is the Electoral Commission (EC), which was last week forced to pull down a voters register from their website after a discrepancy was spotted that possibly pointed to 20,000 ghost voters.

Indeed, many Ugandans still do not trust the EC to be impartial and competent, and many do not believe President Museveni will ever leave power peacefully. But huge numbers of Ugandans are fed up with the status quo. They see Besigye as a viable alternative. And they are determined to make their votes count.

If they do, the results scheduled to be announced on 20 February could be a lot closer than most are currently predicting.

Rosebell Kagumire is a media and communication specialist, digital strategist, public speaker and award-winning blogger. Follow her on twitter at @RosebellK.

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