Uganda presidential frontrunners seek ways to protect votes

As the presidential campaign in Uganda enters the second week, the focus for the three frontrunners is on winning the immediate battle of perception about who is drawing the largest crowds at campaign rallies.

But, more significantly, the candidates are calling to their supporters to get out on polling day, cast and guard their vote against rigging on February 18, 2016 – the date the Electoral Commission has set for both presidential and parliamentary elections.

Poor voter turnout has been an issue in previous presidential elections, having fallen by 13.31 percentage points from the 1996 polls when it was 72.6 per cent, to 59.29 per cent in 2011, partly due to apathy that some analysts have attributed to rigging.

At his fourth campaign stop in Luweero district on November 12, former prime minister Amama Mbabazi assured the mammoth crowds who had turned up that he had the capacity to protect the vote.

“I know most of you are worried that if you cast your votes that they will be stolen. I want to assure you that I have capacity to protect your vote. You should not fear,” Mr Mbabazi said to thunderous applause — matching what he had received a day earlier in Mukono district when he touted his long experience in organising elections in the ruling National Resistance Movement party where, until last December, he was secretary-general.

“I have spent 30 years leading elections, so I know how they work. We are determined and we have capacity to protect the vote… and when we win we will take government because that is the people’s voice and as they say the people’s voice is the voice of God,” he told his supporters in Mukono.

Like Mbabazi, President Yoweri Museveni and leading opposition figure Dr Kizza Besigye have also urged their supporters not to let their vote get stolen.

But Dr Besigye has so far been the most vocal on the subject, arguing that he has consistently been rigged out of all the past three presidential races he has contested in.

At his inaugural rally in his home district of Rukungiri on November 9, and later in Kisoro and Kanungu districts on November 11 and November 12 respectively, Dr Besigye unveiled a strategy to mobilise his supporters into small groups that he described as “Power 10” to facilitate quick connection and liaison over a common agenda, top of which is vote protection.

“We have been winning but our victory has been stolen. Whoever has the intention to dip his hand into our victory [this time] should be careful because that hand would not be able to leave the ballot box,” he told another mammoth rally in Kanungu. 

Set at parish level, these P10s as the teams are otherwise called, are supposed to answer the constant lack of grassroot structures that has tended to work against the Forum for Democratic Change, Uganda’s largest opposition political party, which is backing Dr Besigye’s fourth bid at the presidency.

Their task, should they take root, is to mobilise people to go out and vote, to protect the vote by sticking around the polling stations in order to witness the count as well as the signing of vote declaration forms, which are vital in subsequent verifications, and to “take action” should the campaign team conclude the vote has been fudged with.

The action implied here appears to be either mobilising andor headlining civil protests like the Walk to Work campaign that Dr Besigye was the face of in the wake of the 2011 polls.

According to the Electoral Commission, President Museveni won that election by 68.4 per cent against Besigye’s 26 per cent. But the former FDC president contested that outcome as having been “comprehensively and systematically” engineered in favour of the incumbent who reserves the right to appoint the EC officials.

Opposition parties, civil society, religious and foreign groups have unsuccessfully aocated reforms to this monopoly over appointment of electoral officials, which they say is the birthplace of the prevalent electoral malpractices.

“To expect these fellows not to steal the election is to live in heaven. So that’s why we are mobilising people to go and vote, to protect the vote, and also to be on standby after elections for what happens next,” FDC spokesperson Ssemujju Ibrahim Nganda said.

The choice of the parish level over the village, according to Mr Ssemujju, is to ease mobilisation and quick co-ordination in case there is a need to because the re are 15,000 parishes against between 57,000 and 60,000 villages.

Besigye’s teams are similar – in form and purpose – to the ruling NRM party’s executive committees of 30 people that it has established at every administrative level from the district right down to village level.

According to analysis by 2011 presidential candidate Beti Kamya, who leads the Uganda Federal Alliance party, this network assures the NRM a headstart of at least 2.2 million votes, mobilisers, campaigners and polling station agents.

Indeed, a member of the research unit at the party’s secretariat says these networks will be heavily relied on to mobilise its core grassroots support in an election that some analysts have predicted will be tighter for the NRM than the previous one.

The challenge for the ruling party is the recent shambolic internal elections, which appear to have given Mr Mbabazi a foothold within these networks, noted a newly elected youth leader from Mukono District.

“It is true some people belong to him. We suspect that at least three or four members are with him. Even some LCs [local council aspirants] that went through support him,” said the youth leader, who sought anonymity.

The youth leader added that this why a recently retired army general and former intelligence chief has reportedly been deployed to establish who Mbabazi-leaning supporters are in order to woo them.