Uganda Election Day 2016 (Pt2), The Independent Factor

On February 18th, Ugandans vote in the 6th parliamentary election since the National Resistance Movement (NRM) came to power in 1986. Earlier today I posed updates about the situation on the ground here. In this post I analyze the candidates.

Most international and domestic attention focuses on the presidential race – a dual between Yoweri K. Museveni who is celebrating his 30th year in power, his former doctor and long-time rival Kizza Besigye, and former prime minister Amama Mbabazi.

While many Ugandans are hopeful, major change is unlikely.  In the 2011 elections, President Museveni won by 68.38% in the first round. The most recent opinion polls have him winning with 53% (+/- 2%).  His NRM party also won 256 out of 364 partisan seats (ex officio and UPDF members are considered non-partisan).  This gave the NRM a comfortable 67% of the parliament.

The 10th Parliament of Uganda will consist of 296 seats from single member constituencies at the county/municipal level, 112 district-level seats reserved for women, plus 10 seats for the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and 5 seats each reserved for workers, persons with disabilities, and the youth.  In addition, any minister appointed who is not an elected member of parliament becomes an ex officio member.  Like the president, the term of office is 5 years.

Setting aside the indirectly appointed seats, Ugandans are presently voting for 408 directly elected members of parliament.  So at a minimum, a party wishing to gain control of the legislature needs to secure at least 205 of these seats (in some combination of constituency and woman MP). A more comfortable two-thirds would take 273 seats.

Official data from the Uganda Electoral Commission below shows that the NRM has a distinct advantage in terms of candidature. A total of 397 NRM flagbearers are contesting for directly elected constituency and woman MP seats.  Meanwhile, Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) has 263 candidates.

Mbabazi does not have a political party, but rather a loose movement named “Go Forward”. The ballot structure in Uganda includes a symbol to make it easy for illiterate voters to identify their party or individual candidate of preference. Mbabazi’s symbol is a chair. Thus, if we use this as a rough guide about whether a candidate is Go Forward affiliated, there appear to be 156 candidates running under this movement.

By far, the most common strategy for candidates contesting for the parliament is to avoid parties. About 43% the MP candidates are running as independents.

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However, are these candidates truly independent? The NRM held party primaries late last year to determine its candidates for the 2016 elections.  Many of those who contested for the ruling party and lost are now running as independent candidates.  Some of them have defected to the Go Forward movement. I counted 32 or roughly 21% of the Go Forward parliamentary candidates. A few have even joined another official party (I only counted 6 running for MP on another party ticket who lost in the NRM primaries). But most are contesting as independents – accounting for about 40% of all independent candidates not affiliated with the Go Forward movement.

Some of these “independent” candidates are contesting as NRM-leaning, actively campaigning for Museveni with the NRM signature yellow color, yet also competing against the official party flag bearers.  For example, in Kiboga District, both the constituency and woman MP races are close contests between official NRM candidates and party-leaning independents who lost in the primaries.

In some districts, this might mean that vote splitting between NRM and NRM-leaning candidates weakens the ruling party, allowing for more opposition candidates to gain office than in previous elections.

For example, just two days before the election, Rogers Wadada, an NRM-leaning independent candidate for the Budadiri West constituency in Sironko District decided to withdraw from the race. As the state-owned New Vision newspaper reports, Wadada cited a fear of vote splitting which could favor the incumbent who is a member of the opposition FDC.

“I noticed that the opposition had fielded one candidate in the constituency and was gaining momentum and whereas I was NRM leading, I was splitting the vote”

It is difficult to pin-point whether an independent candidate is NRM-leaning without directly observing her campaign.  After the primaries, some may have abandoned the party without joining the Go Forward movement.  Unfortunately, the NRM-leaning independents are not organized enough to present a unified symbol (for example the woman MP contestant in Kiboga is using a table, but the consistency MP candidate uses a soccer ball).

At the extreme we could assume that all independent candidates who contested the NRM primaries and did not join another party or the Go Forward movement are still NRM leaning.  If this is the case, then we could calculate the minimum level of competition within constituencies. Using this estimate, the NRM flag-bearers and independents who lost the primaries but have not openly defected account for 36% of the candidates for constituency seats and 51% of candidates for woman MP.

A further challenge is that the official data from the Electoral Commission is riddled with errors. Constituency names are not coded properly. There are only 259 county/ municipal constituencies listed (there should be 296). Some of these contain multiple candidates from the same party – suggesting that the list of candidates may be correct but the electoral area names have not been properly denoted.

As a result, it is difficult to tease out the degree of competition at the constituency level. But we can be fairly confident at the district level that candidates are attributed properly.

To get at a measure of district-level competition, I code districts based on the number of real parties represented, with NRM leaning independents recoded as NRM. I treat the Go Forward candidates as a party, but treat all other independents as separate parties. Then I normalize this measure by dividing by the number of candidates in the district. Thus, a score of one on this scale indicates that every candidate represents a different party.  Smaller values suggest that the candidates are concentrated into fewer parties. Because of fundamental differences between constituency and woman MP races, I calculate the level of competition differently for these two types of races.

If anyone has any suggestions on how to better measure this – I’d be happy to receive them. Thanks!

The chart below shows the average level of competition across regions of Uganda for constituency and woman MP seats. Overall, competitiveness based on the candidates’ parties isn’t so bad.  Woman MP seats appear more competitive, but this might be slightly misleading. These values are based on a single contest, whereas the constituency values are aggregated to the district level based on a range of one to ten races depending on the district size.  But both constituency and woman MP races are done as single member district contests.

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It is also important to keep in mind that the presence of multiple candidates from different parties does not always equal competition. Recent reports suggest that of the total funds spent campaigning since last November, the ruling NRM accounts for 88%. A simple stroll around the capital city – where opposition elements are quite strong – shows just how commercialized elections have become here. And the ruling party is definitely outpacing, not just with posters and t-shirts, but even with online advertising like the one below.

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In addition, in some districts, the NRM-leaning independents could mean that what looks like competition is really a choice between candidates supportive of the same party. I counted 22 races.  In another 9 contests, an NRM flagbearer is running uncontested.  As a result, the ruling party already held 31 seats prior to a single ballot being cast.

It is evening here now. The polling should have ended at 1600, but due to widespread delays in delivering materials it has been extended to 1900 (just a few minutes from now). Ugandans are eager to move past this election and onto the next 5 years, without or without a change of regime.  Mostly, they are praying for peace, regardless of the result. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how things pan out for these “independents”, whether they will give a leg up or limit the NRM’s “steady progress”.

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