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Museveni won elections because he has been a bad, not good, president

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

People have lost faith in elections and stayed away in 2011. That’s why he did not use violence this time because people were not fighting back.

President Yoweri Museveni’s victory in the February 18 elections, and the fact that his percentage of the vote increased from 58 percent in 2006 to 68 percent, has kicked off a lively debate.

Trying to explain why Museveni won, and even gained, and his nearest rival and long-term challenger Dr Kizza Besigye stalled, is like the Biblical elephant being described by the blind men. Each of them described it differently, depending on the part they were holding—none had the big picture.

These elections, like previous ones, were stolen. By a smaller margin maybe, but there was rigging. That is the point the opposition have collectively made, and used as a basis to reject the result.

Here is the problem though. Besigye was personally tormented more in 2006; he was falsely imprisoned, and tarnished with trumped allegations of “rape”. In the 2006 election the state machinery was more violent with the opposition, than it was in 2001. Or, definitely, compared to the latest election. However, despite all the violence and harassment, Besigye still grew his vote by nearly one million—and Museveni lost by one million.

If you go by this, you come to the logical but paradoxical conclusion that violence is good for the oppositionAlso, the argument has been made that Museveni was more charming and stylish in this campaign. Now if charm were a decisive vote winner, then DP’s Mao Norbert, not Besigye, would have come second.

Equally persuasive – at first glance –  has been the observation in The Independent that this time the NRM finally behaved like a party, and was rewarded for it. However, in the same issue The Independent tells us that in the past, the corrupt NRM structures used to steal Museveni’s campaign money and tell him lies about his standing on the ground. When the results came in, he would get less than he had been led to believe he would win. So this time he set up a personal strategy team anchored by former VP Speciosa Kazibwe and Finance minister Syda Bumba (seems Museveni thinks men are thieves whom you can’t trust) on one side, and on the other by relatives like Odrek Rwabwogo, Gen. Salim Saleh, and so on.

So, in fact, Museveni won by adopting an anti-party strategy, and relying on familial networks.

Indeed, if one looks at the sheer number of independents in Ugandan politics, from the local council level to Parliament, it is astounding compared to most parts of the world. With 27 independent MPs, Uganda easily boasts the Africa record. So there is nothing in this election that proves that the dynamics of multiparty benefitted anyone.

Again, the opposition, the election observers, and even moderate NRMs agree that the role of money in this election was “too much”. That Museveni spent all the year’s budget and mortgaged the next five years on the elections. According to Andrew Mwenda; “Museveni spent more  (emphasis mine) than US$ 350m on this campaign using largely the public purse (through official government programmes conveniently deployed during the campaigns) but supplemented by private contributions. This figure is almost half the money Barack Obama spent to win elections in the US in 2008, in a country with a GDP of $14 trillion. Given that Uganda’s GDP is $15 billion i.e. 0.1 percent of US GDP, this is an unprecedented record.”

I have a friend at the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Nairobi who specialises in studying African elections. He is damn good, partly because he does mostly statistical analyses so he locks the subjective and emotional out. Based on the trends of the last 20 years, he estimates that the average “cost” to a candidate of delivering a single vote during general elections in a rural area in most of East Africa is $15. In the urban areas, it goes up to $45.  Going by this, the average cost of bagging a vote is $30.

Now, assume Museveni spent $400m on his campaign. That would deliver him 13.3 million votes, nearly all of the registered voters. We don’t know the figures that the other candidates spent, partly because they didn’t draw it from the Treasury. But for the results we have to be true, they would have to have spent at least $125m. That is unlikely. What this suggests is that Museveni’s billions were terribly inefficient at delivering votes. He should have got in the region of 8 million. This is not surprising, though, as it mirrors the general incompetence of the government that Museveni leads.

Also, it was not mathematically possible because of the turnout of 58 percent. If you discount the “ghost votes”, I would say the real turnout was in the region of 48 percent, not 58 percent.

This has led to another debatable argument – that the opposition did poorly because of low voter turnout; because high turnout usually favours the opposition. And if voters had turned out, Museveni’s percentage would have gone down.

I am not sure. True, that is what happens in the west. My sense, though, is that low voter turnout in Africa, and Uganda in particular, can also hurt the incumbent, because the majority of disillusioned and unhappy ruling party supporters usually don’t vote for the opposition. They resolve their contradiction by staying away. That is why I argue that Museveni’s $400m (Sh880 billion) was inefficiently spent, because it should have brought out more than just 5 million voters for him. So, horror of horrors, if we had had a turnout of 80 percent, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Museveni had won by 75 percent!

One reason why some of these scenarios are perplexing is that we make the mistake of thinking that the February 18 election was just an election, or even a referendum on Museveni’s 25 years in power.

I think there is more to the election. The election is the skin and meat on the body of our politics. Its outcome, however, tells us a lot about the shape of the political skeleton below, how it has been changed by the politics, economics, culture, and even environment of the last few years.

The people who research these kinds of things, like my friend Fred Golooba-Mutebi will have to do some scholarly work to give us a better picture. For now, I only have a tentative sense of what might have happened. The first point that needs to be made is that in its dying years, a corrupt and oppressive (or half-democratic) regime does not necessarily have to do badly in elections. On the contrary, it often does very well. Take deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

Though his National Democratic Party (NDP) had always dominated Parliament, in elections at the end of 2010 it went one better. It snatched all the 88 seats that the opposition Muslim Brotherhood held, giving it 95 percent of the elective 425 seats in Parliament.

However, the fellows who supposedly voted in their millions for Mubarak’s party, turned into activists baying for his blood even while stray votes from the election were still being counted and added up, and drove him out.

This happens because there is an overall loss of faith in the political system, a loss of faith in both the government, and the opposition (which is why Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood failed to lead the anti-Mubarak protests). Call it the secession of the electorate. This secession is what created the environment for the very high campaign expenditure in Uganda. In the past, the voters were like dear girlfriends for who you don’t have to buy gifts daily to prove your love. Now they are prostitutes, strangers, whose favours the candidates have to pay for.

Secondly, the “de-democratisation” of the country; where the democratic space does not grow in real terms, but actually shrinks. Opinion polls indeed did show that Ugandans were more afraid to speak their minds in 2011, than in 2005.

One product of this is that the public is not energised enough to contest the state. When someone is not punching you back, you can’t really have a fight with them. This is what enabled a relatively violence-free election. If the people had been more willing to contest Museveni, as in 2001 or 2006, he would not have been able to keep the dogs in the house.

Together, these factors shift the overall balance of power in favour of the government. In that sense, then, the election outcome was a measure not of Museveni’s standing, but the level of the balance of power between society and the state. And in that context, we must recognise that power has shifted away even from NRM the party, to Museveni the man and president.

So in terms of democratic safeguards, and state stability, we have taken several steps back and entered the most unpredictable period of the Museveni years.

To illustrate this point, let us compare Uganda with Kenya. Kenya had its first election since the return of multiparty politics in 1992. Then president Daniel arap Moi splashed money just as we have witnessed the Museveni camp do. Some of the money was diverted from the National Security Fund. The government also flooded the country with billions of newly printed shillings, doubling the nation’s money supply.

On December 29, 1992 Moi was elected president by a minority of voters – just over 34 percent of the popular vote. The three major opposition candidates split nearly 64 percent of the vote. However, while the ruling KANU party got 100 seats in Parliament, the Opposition garnered 88.

That election, and the economic scandals that were undertaken to finance it, left Kenya reeling—and to date it has never quite recovered. During the next election in 1997, Kenya was an economic basket case. However, Moi won again. Although he still had a minority of the vote, he increased his percentage to 40.6 percent! His closest rival, the current President Mwai Kibaki came a close second with 31.5 percent, and the current Prime Minister Raila Odinga was third with 11.1 percent of the vote.

Moi stepped down in 2002, and the Kibaki-led National Rainbow Coalition defeated his KANU party that had ruled Kenya for 34 years at that point, resoundingly. It was the first time in the long history of East Africa that an opposition defeated a sitting government. By the next election, 2007, KANU could not even field a presidential candidate on its own, and today has only 14 seats in Parliament.

So, Moi’s spike in 1997 like that of Mubarak’s NDP last year, was not a good, but bad, omen. But for Kenya’s democracy, the close performance of the opposition candidates, and their showing in Parliament that enabled them to essentially deadlock the government, revealed that there was a “real democratic spread” happening at the bottom that would eventually uproot KANU. Unfortunately, the performance of the opposition in both the presidential and Parliamentary elections indicates that no such a thing is happening in Uganda.

So if the election outcomes of February 18 tell me anything, it is that Ugandan democracy, if there is any such thing, is in very poor health.

*Adapted from an article the author is writing for a political journal.

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