How legitimate claims of electoral malpractice have blinded the opposition to its strategic weaknesses
THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | Leading opposition figure, Dr. Kizza Besigye, has said he will not participate in the coming presidential elections because it will not be free and fair. According to Besigye, he has won all the last four presidential elections he has contested against President Yoweri Museveni. He claims the official results that are always announced by the Electoral Commission are false. Indeed, on two occasions (2001 and 2006) the Supreme Court of Uganda has said there were significant irregularities in the electoral process. On both occasions and with a majority of one vote it has refused to annul the election on the grounds that these irregularities were not sufficient to alter the final outcome of the election.
There is a lot of evidence that elections in Uganda are not free and fair. Museveni enjoys all the advantages of incumbency and uses the state to limit the space within which his opponents can campaign. Before official election campaigns begin, he uses the police to block their mobilisation while at the same time using the resources of the state to campaign under the guise of poverty alleviation or wealth creation programs. He dominates the mass state and private media. By the time of official campaigns, he has a big head start over his rivals.
So the opposition have always faced a tough dilemma from which they have had to make a trade-off. Should they participate in a clearly rigged electoral process and thereby legitimise it? Or should they, on principle, boycott the elections and therefore stifle their own voice? Remember elections are the only time when the opposition are offered some degree of freedom to articulate their grievances to the electorate. I think that they have always chosen the freedom to articulate their grievances to the public clearly knowing that doing so legitimises a rigged electoral process.
But many incumbents in Africa have used all tricks Museveni uses and lost. It follows therefore that the opposition in Uganda cannot wait for a free and fair election, which would be a pipedream. Their strategy therefore has to be to win an election that is neither free nor fair. How? This means that they have to turn their apparent weaknesses into strength. But it also requires that they look for opportunities for victory in spite of, or even because of, all the roadblocks that are thrown in their way.
Indeed, the idea that Museveni steals their votes is so deeply entrenched in the mind of leading opposition figures that it has blinded them to the strategic weaknesses in their camp. For instance, after the 2016 elections, a leading opposition activist wrote a long explanation of how there were many polling stations where voter turnout was 100%, a clear proxy for election rigging. He also showed that in all of them Museveni got 90% of the votes and more. He said this is evidence of rigging. I agree with him.
If you cannot count what is important, you make what you count important. While 100% voter turnout is clearly evidence of electoral malpractice – how can it be possible that in a given electoral area not a single person died, travelled, fell ill or was busy or disinterested in showing up to vote. But how significant are such polling stations to the final outcome of the election? Besides, 100% voter turnout is evidence of overwhelming support for a given candidate, a factor that shows even without rigging such turnout would have been high and the candidate gotten a huge majority.
But let us look at what is statistically important. There were 28,010 polling stations in the 2016 presidential elections. Of these, 127 reported 100% voter turnout. Total votes cast on these polling stations were 42,627. Museveni got 5,971,872 votes against Besigye who got 3,508,687 votes in that election. So even if we cancelled all votes in these polling stations it would make almost no statistical difference in the outcome. But the opposition have made 100% voter turnout in 127 polling stations important even though its contribution to Museveni’s victory is statistically insignificant.
The real weakness of the opposition can be seen in the number of candidates they field for MPs, LC5, LC3 chairpersons and other local councillors during elections. In 2016, out of 289 directly elected MP slots, FDC fielded only 201. Out of 112 district women MP, FDC fielded only 61. Out of 112 LCV posts, FDC fielded 43. Out of nearly 1,400 directly elected city and district councillors, FDC fielded only 520. Out of 950 city and district female councillors, FDC fielded only 269. Out of 7,000 sub country, municipal and town councillors, FDC fielded only 1,123.
Thus the lower you go on the local councils the more miserable is the number of candidates the opposition is able to field. Yet this is an important indicator of presence on the ground and predicts the chances of electoral success. The inability to find leaders at the lowest level reveals a weakness of the opposition to have presence in villages to rally their supporters to turnout and vote and most critically to have agents at polling stations to stop NRM stuffing ballot boxes. To ignore this reality and instead focus on electoral malpractices by the NRM, both real and imagined, as the critical factor causing electoral defeat is to bury one’s head in the sand.
In regard to polling, let us use 90% plus voter turnout at polling stations as a proxy for vote rigging. In 2001, Uganda had 17,269 polling stations. Of these 155 (or 0.8%) had 100% turnout, 90%-plus voter turnout were 2,731 (15.8%). In 2006, we had 19,786 polling stations. Polling stations reporting 100% voter turnout were 128 (or 0.6%); 90%-plus voter turnout were 713 (3.6%). In 2011, Uganda had 23,968 polling stations. Those with 100% voter turnout were 123 (0.5%) and 559 polling stations (2.3%) reported 90%-plus voter turnout. In 2016, Uganda had 28,010 polling stations 127 (0.4%) reported 100% voter turnout. Only in 540 (1.9%) polling stations did we have 90% voter turnout. Clearly Museveni’s ability to steal votes has been consistently declining.
But there is more to learn from election trends. In 2001, 100% voter turnout was in 52 counties, with Nyabushozi and Kazo counties (both in Museveni’s home district of Kiruhura) contributing 18%. In 2006, it was in 42 counties, Kiruhura contributed 33%. In 2011, it was in 31 counties with Kiruhura contributing 37%.
In 2016, polling stations reporting 100% voter turnout were in only 22 counties with Kiruhura making 47%. Again these figures show that Museveni‘s ability to rig is shrinking to a narrow area of his Bahima ethnic kin in his district plus Nakaseke, which is a part of the cattle corridor. Meanwhile, Besigye’s votes became more generalised across the country. And that is after he lost his northern Uganda base.