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Feb. 18 vote changers

By Melina Platas

Three factors that could determine if Besigye or Museveni wins

As ears ring with protests calling for the end of an era, longtime rulers shift uncomfortably. Amidst palpable unease, the run-up to the 2011 elections has been eerily calm. Seasoned analysts debate whether President Yoweri Museveni’s vote share will continue to fall, as it has over the past three elections, from 75% in 1996 to 59% in 2006. Echoes of angry crowds, snapshots of courts besieged, boldface charges of treason and rape, drift in and out of public consciousness. But this election feels different. This election feels certain, and uncertain.


In the last election the president won the least number of votes in his career – just 4 million to secure a third term. He had lost nearly a million votes since 2001. Today, surrounded by a generation for whom “Museveni” is synonymous with “President”, he is asking for yet another chance.

Recent polls suggest that next Friday, Museveni will comfortably stay the course, plowing into his fourth term and twenty-sixth year leading the country. And there are good reasons to believe the polls. Museveni and NRM candidates have run a tough campaign against a divided and disorganised opposition. Election season has been a grueling, all-chips-in affair both back and bank breaking. But Museveni commands an audience among a populace that is not sure lead opponent Kizza Besigye is a change they can believe in. The status quo remains a predicable if disenchanting option.

The four graphs above show that across regions, voter turnout (%) tended to be higher where Museveni received a greater percentage of the votes in 2001. Each point represents a district.

Museveni’s opponents not only tussle amongst themselves, but cannot seem to break away from an anti-Museveni to a pro-anything campaign. Besigye has lost the novelty factor he once held, as an exiled freedom fighter riding into the capital on a wave of high hopes. This time, absent Mambas and treason charges, he has been relatively free to campaign in peace. He has drawn the crowds, but it seems to fall short.

And yet, there is reason to give pause. Despite the polls, a doubt remains. Blame the crisis in Kenya, the resilience of Laurent Gbagbo in Ivory Coast, the fragility of Ben Ali in Tunisia, or the surging power of ordinary Egyptians against Hosni Mubarak. Today there remains a suspicion that anything can happen on February 18. And with a week to go, anything could. Here are some things to consider:

Voter turnout

Voter turnout will be critical to the outcome of the 2011 presidential elections. With each election, Museveni has not only lost percentage points, but also votes. However, high voter turnout in Museveni’s strongholds has helped mitigate his falling numbers. Districts with higher support for Museveni tended to have higher voter turnout in both the 2001 and 2006 elections. This was especially true in the West and Central regions of the country.

Besigye gained ground in the 2006 election, narrowing the margin between himself and the incumbent. But districts with high support for Besigye, like Gulu and Pader, had much lower voter turnout, around 60%, than Museveni’s strongest areas, districts like Kiruhura, Kisoro and Isingiro, who turned out 80% or more.

In 2006, districts where Museveni received a higher percentage of the vote tended to have higher turnout. Above, central region districts are in black, northern in green, western in blue, and eastern in red.

Northern Uganda had the lowest average voter turnout, at 66%, while the West had the highest turnout, at 75%. Would greater voter turnout in opposition territory in 2006 have tipped the scales in Besigye’s favor? Perhaps, but we do not know why 3 million of the 10 million registered voters stayed home on polling day, or which candidate they preferred. If those who stayed home supported Besigye, it is still unlikely they would have pushed him into power even if they had turned up to vote. But these would-be Besigye voters certainly could have chipped away at Museveni’s majority, possibly pushing it dangerously close to 50%. These voters can be game-changing, and there are millions of them. Around 3.5 million more have registered to vote since 2006. The question this time is: who will show up, and who will stay home?

In one week, 13.8 million people will have the opportunity to choose their next president. If past elections are predictive, only about 70%, or 9.7 million, will actually cast a ballot. To reach the 50% mark, Museveni will need about 4.8 million votes, more than he received in the last election. He cannot afford to let votes leak to opposition candidates.  Election 2011 is his to lose.

Invalid votes

Fraud and manipulation have plagued Uganda’s elections, and so has human error. In 2006 there were nearly 300,000 invalid votes for presidential candidates. Higher rates of invalid votes were not evenly spread across the country. The highest average rates of invalid votes were in North and Eastern Uganda. In these two regions, about 5% of all votes cast were invalid. In the West and Central regions the rate of invalid voting was about 3%.

Kapchorwa, Dokolo, and Moroto had the highest rates of invalid votes in 2006, at around 12%, 11% and 9% respectively of total votes cast. Meanwhile, Kiruhura, Ibanda, and Lyantonde had the lowest rates, at around one or two percent.

Districts with higher support for Museveni in 2001 tended to have lower rates of invalid votes.

Where you live seems to matter in terms of your chances of casting an invalid vote. But it is not clear how many invalid votes are the result of deliberate manipulation, which could benefit either the incumbent or the opposition, and how many are the result of honest mistakes.

However, in both the 2001 and 2006 elections, districts where Museveni had higher support also tended to have the lowest rates of invalid votes. Additionally, the average percentage of invalid votes doubled between 2001 and 2006, from 2% to 4%.

The 300,000 votes that were rendered useless in 2006 were more than the total number of votes cast that year for John Ssebana, Abed Bwanika, and Miria Obote combined. They are equivalent to the total number of registered voters in Kasese, Arua, or Iganga today. But several hundred thousand votes, while no means a trivial number, would not have put Besigye ahead of Museveni even if all 300,000 had been intended for Besigye. Instead, the inclusion of more opposition votes, FDC or otherwise, would have brought Museveni slightly closer to dipping below the 50% line.

Museveni needs to worry less that Besigye will beat him in an absolute vote tally. A divided opposition helps alleviate that fear. But he will need to worry about keeping his own numbers from dipping below a majority.

In the event of a close call, finding “invalid” votes could help keep a sinking boat afloat.

Rates of invalid voting were much higher overall in 2006 than in 2001, but the pattern remains - lower rates of invalid votes where Museveni’s support is high.

What Museveni needs to win

With a historical turnout of 70%, Museveni will need about 4.8 million of 9.7 million anticipated votes to win the election in one round. Between 2001 and 2006 his votes fell from 5 to 4 million. He needs not only to maintain his numbers, but pick up an additional 800,000, at a minimum.

Where will he find these votes? Struggles with Buganda over the past several years, and most recently with the King’s Bill, may mean that some votes in the central region have already slipped through his fingers.  The districts with the greatest number of new voters, Kampala and Wakiso – together adding almost 700,000 voters to the register – are not always friendly to Museveni.

Museveni hopes to make up for any losses in Central Uganda by making inroads into the electorate in Northern Uganda. But of the four regions, the North has the fewest number of new voters, around 630,000. The North has also historically had the lowest voter turnout. Meanwhile, more than one million voters have been added to the register in Central Uganda. Around 830,000 have been added in the West, and 800,000 in the East.

Who has captured the hearts and hopes of these new voters, more than 3.5 million in total? How many will turn up to vote? There is little idea of what we can expect from this new generation of voters, since past elections have not shown a regular increase in registered voters. Between 2001 and 2006 the number of registered voters actually decreased slightly. An influx of so many voters with unknown preferences and behavior is enough to make any incumbent nervous.

A betting man will still put his money on Museveni next Friday. But a last minute push to get out the vote could start rocking the boat, especially in the places where the opposition is strongest. Museveni’s strongholds already stand up to be counted on election day, so it is the opposition who will have to work to get to the polls the 30-40% of voters who stayed home last time around.

Candidates on both sides should also be aware that far-flung districts, particularly in the North and East, have seen suspiciously high numbers of invalid votes – especially in places where the opposition is relatively strong.

The election remains Museveni’s to lose, but he has to make up the votes he lost between 1996 and 2006. Without gaining fresh ground while maintaining his base, his majority is not guaranteed. Even a divided opposition cannot save him if he bleeds any more support. The chips are all in. How do you bet?

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