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Uganda decides

This is the second of three blogs about Uganda’s 2011 electionswritten by a Ugandan journalist living in Kampala who has asked to remain anonymous.

Kampala, Uganda – The end is in sight for Uganda’s eight presidential candidates whose election campaigns began in November last year. The polls on February 18 will mark the end of a carnival-like atmosphere that has swept the country over the past months. Symbols, signs, colours and anthems of the country’s major political parties have been on near constant show since the campaigns kicked off. Supporters from all parties have been enthusiastically waving their flags, thrusting their clenched fists, clapping their palms, and giving the occasional two-finger salute!

President Museveni and his main challenger for office, Dr Kizza Besigye, have been keen to showcase their political clout through a series of high profile political rallies. Large political demonstrations are a long-standing obsession with Ugandan politicians keen to flex their muscles in public. This time, more than in previous campaigns, the youth have been the main target of election rallies. Over half of Uganda’s population is under 30, representing a significant political constituency.

Music has been the principal medium to engage with Uganda’s burgeoning young population. President Museveni has been particularly astute in this respect, releasing his very own ‘rap’ video in an attempt to reach out to Uganda’s younger voters. In a direct appeal to Uganda’s rural youth, Museveni recites the following lyrics: “I was given a knife. I gave it to the people who harvested millet and they gave me the millet. I gave the millet to the cattle keepers, who in exchange gave me a cow.” At every official campaign rally, President Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party (NRM) have hired the country’s top music artists to attract hordes of young voters.

Media jostles

Behind the noise and vibrancy of the political rallies that have characterised the campaigns lies a more subtle clash for votes and influence – the ongoing battle for the airwaves. Radio remains the most popular medium of communication in Uganda, particularly the rural areas. InterMedia, a non-profit research organisation, estimates there are about 200 private FM radio stations in Uganda. But many of these stations, however, are thought to be owned by members and allies of the ruling party.

Opposition parties have accused the government of blocking their access to the media. The Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), led by Dr Besigye, paid for special announcements on the public broadcaster, Uganda Broadcasting Corporation (UBC). But the announcements were not aired, nor was the money refunded. No explanation was given. The FDC have filed a legal case against the UBC, demanding US$600,000 in compensation for the lost opportunity.

In the face of adversity, the opposition supporters have taken the battle online, using the popular social media site Facebook to call forPresident Museveni’s resignation. But with internet penetration currently at 7.9% of the population, such initiatives will have limited impact. The government are well aware that the radio remains the most powerful tool to inform, educate and mobilise Ugandans.

Third time lucky?

The elections on Saturday 18th February will be the third time that the retired colonel, Dr Besigye is contesting the presidency. He has failed in the two previous attempts to unseat Museveni who has ruled Uganda since 1986. Museveni is the longest serving president of Uganda, outstripping by nearly three times the rule of Idi Amin Dada whose oppressive junta lasted nine years. Ugandans born in 1986 when Museveni took power are now women and men with families.

Since 2000, Museveni’s popularity has been dwindling, and his share of the national vote is expected to further decline this year. Such realities have spurred the opposition. Dr Besigye has tried to persuade voters that President Museveni is yesterday’s man: “The trend shows that Museveni’s vote has been declining while our vote is increasing. In 1996 he got 75 %. In 2001, he scored 69% of the vote. In 2006, even when I campaigned in handcuffs, Museveni got 56%. With such a trend, what would you expect Museveni to get this time round?”

Opinion polls continue to favour President Museveni and his NRM party. Most predictions suggest Museveni will capture between 60 and 65% of the vote. These figures have been widely published in the state and private media. But opposition parties maintain that the opinion polls are simply propaganda, and that the government is trying to hoodwink Ugandan voters. Both Museveni and Besigye have announced that victory will be theirs on February 18th. In the event that neither candidate received 50% of the vote, a re-run will be required.

The scene is set for a gripping contest, one that will likely push Uganda’s young democracy to its limits. Dr Besigye maintains that past election victories were stolen from him by a combination of voter intimidation and vote rigging. While President Museveni still holds substantial political support in Uganda, he cannot rest on his laurels. With popular protests sweeping North Africa, the political climate for the polls has changed dramatically since the beginning of the campaigns – a reality that is not lost on his main contender for office.

In a written statement to the armed forces on February 6, 2011 as they commemorated the 30th anniversary of the armed rebellion against former president Milton Obote, Besigye noted: ‘If the election is rigged again, I will not go back to the court; the struggle is not mine alone. It belongs to our supporters across the country. If our victory is stolen it is the court of public opinion to which I will appeal’.