Acholi the new swing factor in the 2016 Uganda election

In any presidential election, if a candidate wants to maximise their chances of winning they need to mobilise their supporters to turn out to register to vote in large numbers.

They also need to try and win over marginal or swing areas eat into the vote of their principal opponents and ensure that — if there is going to be any malpractice — they have the ability to steal more votes than any other candidate.

This logic ensures that some constituencies and regions end up being more important for electoral outcomes than others.

In Uganda, one such area is the Acholi sub-region in the north. In the first multiparty election in 2006, Acholi constituted a key opposition stronghold. However, in 2011, this was the area where the vote margins of the principal opposition candidates declined most sharply, as Norbert Mao (DP) and Olara Otunnu (UPC) ate into Kizza Besigye’s support base, and President Yoweri Museveni managed to increase his share of the vote to secure a slight majority.

During a recent trip to Gulu, the capital of Acholiland, the general feeling was that President Museveni was set to repeat this achievement in next February’s election. But why?

The short answer is that with the end of war in the region, the NRM can argue that it has helped bring peace and various development projects also the government continues to use state resources and, perhaps, a degree of electoral malpractice to facilitate its victory.

Yet, in practice, the situation is more complicated. In addition to the factors already cited, the weakness of the opposition and the extent to which the state and NRM have become synonymous also play a key role.

Regarding the former, the failure of the opposition to agree on a joint candidate through The Democratic Alliance (TDA) is critical. With a single candidate, TDA would have appeared as a much greater threat than Dr Besigye and Amama Mbabazi pose as separate candidates.

In short, they would have been able to mobilise many traditional opposition voters who have become sceptical and apathetic in the face of repeated opposition defeats. But they might also have attracted a significant number of NRM supporters who believe that it is time for President Museveni to stand down and hand over to a successor.

This would have been possible since, as a former prime minister and NRM insider, Mr Mbabazi could easily have presented himself as constituting a change of guard, rather than a more substantive change of regime.

In contrast, the opposition’s failure to agree on a joint candidate fuels a perception that the candidates simply seek to secure power for themselves and their allies.

Moreover, now that the opposition has failed to agree on a joint presidential candidate, a common question is why President Museveni would lose in February 2016 when he has been able to beat a divided opposition to date. The implication is that the opposition is in a similar position to previous elections, and that either they will not be able to win, or that President Museveni and the NRM will not let them win.

This sense of pessimism is further fuelled by a widespread perception of a possible Cote d’Ivoire-style crisis in the event of an opposition victory.

Fears of violence are informed by recent memories of the war, but also by reports of militias being trained by people close to President Museveni and by questions surrounding the recruitment and training of thousands of Crime Preventers — the timing of which fosters suspicions that they will be used to intimidate opposition supporters and to mobilise support for the NRM.

The validity of such assessments is difficult to determine. Nevertheless, the fear of violence is sufficient to further dampen support for opposition candidates: If the latter are divided and largely interested in obtaining power for their own selfish ends, and their election could cause chaos, then perhaps President Museveni’s re-election is a “less bad” alternative.

However, President Museveni and the NRM have also been working hard to mobilise support in the region through other means. In particular, NRM has long cultivated the idea that those who back the opposition can expect to lose state favour. Thus, if you want new roads, or clinics, in your area, or if your children hope for scholarships and jobs, voting for the opposition may not be a good idea and it may be better to vote for the NRM.

This logic gains credence from the sense that the NRM is likely to win, and is also unwilling to lose. However, it also gains weight from the fact that the few leaders from the region who were elected on an NRM ticket in 2011 were awarded with significant positions. This includes Oulanyah Jacob L’Okori, the MP for Omoro County, who was appointed Deputy Speaker of parliament.

In addition, the NRM has been extremely effective in blurring the lines between the party and state at the local level. This has been achieved, at least in part, through the office of Local Council 1 (LC1)hairpersons who were last elected before the return to multiparty politics in 2005, and who are thus all aligned to the NRM.

Officially, the LC1’s term has come to an end, rendering the legality of their position somewhat questionable. However, as one LC3 chairperson told me in October: “If you want any support from the government, your LC1 should recommend you If the LC1 has not stamped your document, I don’t work on it.”

He went on to say how “we cannot do without them, whether legally there or illegally there, as they oversee development and also manage security at the local level.” The latter means, for example, that it is the LC1 who is in charge of appointing and supervising the new Crime Preventers at the village level.

Together with the use of state resources and power, and weakness of the opposition, such careful positioning by the NRM and close association of the party with day-to-day state activities ensures that President Museveni’s position in Acholi is currently looking fairly stable. However, this does not mean it will remain so.

For example, chaotic NRM primaries could increase frustrations at the local level, and also lead to a mass defection to Mr Mbabazi’s team, which would render him a more serious contender for the top office.

It also does not mean that the NRM will necessarily win the election. As noted at the outset, Acholi is important because of its status as a former opposition stronghold that swung to the NRM in 2011, but — by itself — it will not determine the outcome.

Instead, NRM will have to retain its traditional support bases, and try to ensure that opposition voters remain apathetic and either do not turn out to vote in large numbers, or that some actually vote for the NRM in the hope that, at the very least, they will receive some state patronage in return.

Gabrielle Lynch is an associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Warwick, UK