Last week, President Yoweri K. Museveni was re-elected for a fifth term, at the end of which he will have ruled Uganda for 35 years. In this post, I take a look at the trends in competitiveness and overall vote results across the five elections.
After coming to power through civil war in 1986, Museveni was sworn in as president for an interim period. In 1996, presidential elections were held for the first time since 1980. Political parties were banned in the contest under a “movement” system – the goal of which was to eliminate sectarian rivalries based upon ethnic and religious cleavages. As Museveni writes is his memoir,
“A friend was someone who belonged to the same religious denomination irrespective of his or her qualities – whether good or bad, pro- or anti-peasant. This was the greatest form of ideological obscurantism, because it completely obscured reality, and thus the understanding of the numerous social and economic issues that had to be dealt with.”
Ironically, however, the election boiled down to Museveni’s movement versus two religious-based rivals. The other two candidates for president included Paul Ssemogerere, a career politician affiliated with the Catholic dominated Democratic Party, and Muhammad Kibirige Mayanja, founder of the Muslim-dominated JEEMA party.
Museveni won with 74% of the vote in the first round, providing much-needed legitimacy for the National Resistance Movement. However, his victory was clouded by continued opposition pressure from the Northern region of Uganda. There he officially carried less than 28% of the vote as compared to over 75% in the East and Central regions and over 97% in the West (his home region). The concentration of opposition in the Northern region posed both political and security challenges to the new government seeking to present itself as a voice of Ugandan nationalism and economic progress.
This regional voting pattern persisted in the 2001 and 2006 elections, with Museveni capturing only 37% and 32% of the Northern votes (respectively).
The 2006 elections are perhaps the most competitive that Uganda has experienced. These were the first held after the movement system was abandoned, lifting the ban on political parties. It was, however, a bittersweet victory for opposition groups. That same election saw the lifting of presidential term limits, paving the way for Museveni’s continued tenure.
Despite coming to power on a platform that rejected traditional big man politics, Museveni encouraged and embraced unlimited terms.
“The problem of Africa in general and Uganda in particular is not the people, but leaders who want to overstay in power.”
During the 2006 elections Ugandans demonstrated their commitment to democracy and discontent with Museveni’s continued rule. For the first time, his support fell below 60%. Even in the West, he secured less than 80% of the vote. And in the North, where Museveni had managed to procure a record 37% of the vote in 2001, votes for him fell to 33%.
Most political scientists would consider the 2006 elections a “founding” moment. Uganda had officially transitioned into a multiparty regime. One might even give it the label “developing democracy”.
However, subsequent elections in 2011 and last week demonstrate that the level of political competition has slipped over election cycles. As political campaigns have become more commercialized, the ruling party has effectively secured an uneven playing field significantly tipped in its favor. With nearly a monopoly over access to state funds, vehicles, and offices, the ruling party has outspent and out-campaigned opponents at least seven-fold in the 2016 elections.
And the overall polling results show for it. In 2011 and 2016, Museveni won a resounding victory nationwide, including the Northern region. In 2011, he managed to secure a majority victory in 99 out of 112 districts. Overall, he won with 68% of the vote. In 2016, this slipped to 93 districts, but he still won with by over 60%.
Generally, opposition strongholds in the country have remain concentrated in the North and in urban areas (see maps below). Museveni has managed to make some inroads in the North, however, carrying it with over 50% of the vote in the last two elections. Meanwhile, for the first time in 2016, long-time rival Kizza Besigye managed to secure a majority of the votes in two districts of Western Uganda.
As Ugandans move on, reorienting their daily lives back into routine, the post-election climate remains tense in the capital city of Kampala. International monitors for the most part have condemned the elections has unfair and called upon the government to make inroads toward ensuring a peaceful resolution of opposition complaints, especially with regard to polling delays at key opposition strongholds and numerous stories of ballot stuffing. Other commentators claim that “Voters went to sleep in 2016, woke up in 1980” in reference to the highly rigged elections that brought Obote back to power and encouraged Museveni’s bush war.
Meanwhile, the Ugandan national police continue to quarantine Besigye at his residence, denying him the right to vote in local elections yesterday and limiting his ability to challenge the results of the elections (which he only has two more days to file).
Others are already looking forward to 2021. All that stands between Museveni and a lifetime presidency is the constitutional age restriction barring presidential candidates over 75 years old. There has already been discussion about scrapping this limitation on the man with the yellow hat. Museveni, for his part, has claimed he will respect the rule, but also says he has much work left to do.