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Poll battles erupt

 By Haggai Matsiko

Two polls in two days

Which poll should be believed?

On Jan. 19, Uganda’s leading daily newspaper; The New Vision ran an in-house poll on the 2016 presidential election which put President Yoweri Museveni’s support at 71 %, Kizza Besigye 19 %, Amama Mbabazi 6 % and Abed Bwanika 1 %. A day later, renowned pollsters Research World International (RWI) released a poll showing 51 % support for Museveni, 32% Besigye, and 12% for Mbabazi.

The RWI poll indicated that presidential candidates Amama Mbabazi and Kizza Besigye now stand a higher chance of forcing a re-run against President Yoweri Museveni. This is because while Museveni is still the most popular of all the presidential candidates, he also continues to lose supporters.

Although all polls show Museveni leading, they raise questions about how the general public should interpret the starkly different scales they present.

The RWI poll was carried out between December 19, 2015 and Jan.10, while the New Vision poll was done from December 14-31, 2015. They both asked an almost similar question about the one person the respondent would support for president if the election was held at the time. They all had +/-5 margin of error.

The RWI poll gave Museveni 51 % mentions, Besigye 32%, and Mbabazi 12%. Abed Bwanika came in fourth with 1% followed by Venansius Baryamureeba, Maj. Gen. Benon Biraaro, Joseph Mabirizi and lastly Maureen Kyalya. UP to 4 % of the respondents were undecided.

These polls come out two months into campaigns and just weeks to Feb.18 when voting is slated to take place. At stake for the opposition and their supporters is whether any of their candidates is able to end the reign of President Museveni who this month caps 30 years in power. President Museveni and his ruling party have also doubled their effort as they aim to extend their rule for another five years.

For observers, the polls are the latest window into how each side is fairing.

RWI’s Executive Director, Patrick Wakida, says that like all opinion polls, the results are just a snapshot of opinion at a particular point in time. There are chances a lot could change between now and February 2016 when the polls will be carried out.

His pollsters interviewed 2,685 registered voters in 89 districts in a poll with an +/-5 error margin. What the poll shows is that given the +/-5 error margin, which is quite big, Museveni’s 51% is easily the same as 46 %.

At the region level, Museveni beats Besigye and Mbabazi in Central, Eastern, Northern and Western. Besigye beats Museveni in only Kampala and Mbabazi in all regions. Museveni beats Besigye and Mbabazi in the rural settings and Mbabazi in both rural and urban. Besigye beats both Mbabazi and Museveni in urban settings.

The rich love Museveni, but the poor do not dislike him either. Amongst low, medium and high income earners, Museveni beats all the candidates. He is most popular amongst high income earners 77 % followed by low 54%.

On the other hand, Besigye and Mbabazi are most popular amongst medium income earners with 39 % and 12 % respectively.

Re-run is likely

For the first time in Uganda’s electoral history, the RWI poll shows that 2016 might turn out to be a race between three candidates and not the usual two. Where past polls often showed only Museveni and Besigye in the contest, this poll shows Mbabazi in the race. It shows that if the race is left to Museveni, Mbabazi and Besigye only, the candidates remain with the same percentage points, 51, 32 and 12 respectively.

However, between Mbabazi and Museveni, Museveni’s support increases by 5 percentage points to 57% and Mbabazi’s by 12 percentage points or 50 % to 24 %.

Between Museveni and Besigye, the incumbent only gets 2 percentage points to 53 percent and Besigye 7 percentage points to 39 percent.

This means that Museveni fortunes are best when facing only Mbabazi, fair when facing Besigye and worst when facing both Mbabazi and Besigye.

This is because when one considers the +/-5 error margin, in a contest with Mbabazi, Museveni’s 57% falls to 52%, in which case he would return as president. Yet in a contest with Besigye, Museveni’s 53 % easily falls to 48 %, in which case he would be forced into a re-run. But the situation is much worse when Museveni is up against Besigye and Mbabazi. Here the incumbent’s vote at 51 %, falls to 46 percent.

This poll follows another poll by the same pollster, which was carried out between July 13—26, 2016. That showed that that 55 percent of the respondents would vote President Museveni, 27 percent would vote his three-time challenger Besigye and 13 percent, former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi.

When compared to the current poll, it becomes clear that the gaining candidate is Besigye.

Besigye has been able to grow his support by 5 percentage points from 27 % to 32 %. Museveni has lost 4 percentage points from 55 % to 51% and Mbabazi has lost 1 percentage point from 13 % to 12 %.

The numbers seem to suggest that Besigye has eaten into both Museveni’s and Mbabazi’s base. From the numbers, it seems as if Besigye has grabbed the 4 % from Museveni and 1 % from Mbabazi to make his 5 % gain.

Also in last year’s poll, in a contest of two, Museveni would get 57%, Besigye’s 28 %, and 54 % against Mbabazi’s 22 %.

In the current poll, in a contest of two, Museveni can only secure 57 % against Mbabazi’s 24 % and 53 % against Besigye’s 39 percent.

What this shows is that in a contest of two, Besigye is able to grow his support against Museveni by 11 percentage points from 28 % in last year’s poll to 39 % in the current poll. Mbabazi on the other hand, is only able to grow his support by 2 percentage points, from 22 % to 24 %.

If this poll had come out at the time Besigye and Mbabazi were deep in negotiations of selecting the single candidate, clearly, the numbers would be stacked against Mbabazi.

RWI’s previous polls have turned out to be proper assessments of the political environment.

Take the poll RWI did in the October 2012 Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) presidential poll. When asked which candidate they would vote for if elections were held then, 49 percent mention Mugisha Muntu, 25 percent Nandala Mafabi and 3 percent Godfrey Ekanya. When the actual elections were held that November, Muntu emerged the winner followed by Nandala and then Ekanya.

In another case, shortly before the 2011 presidential elections, a poll by RWI showed that 64 percent of the respondents would vote Museveni and 22 percent Besigye. That RWI’s poll was slightly different from the November 18 and December 6, 2010 poll by Afrobarometer, which gave Museveni 66%, Kizza Besigye 12%, Mao 3%, Otunnu 3%, Uganda Federal Alliance’s Beti Kamya 1% and independent candidate Samuel Lubega, PPP candidate Jaberi Bidandi-Ssali, and PDP candidate Abed Bwanika would all get 0 percent. The second poll by the same organisation, carried out between Jan. 20 and 30, gave Museveni 65% compared to 15% for his closest challenger, Besigye.

When the actual results were announced, President Museveni had 68 percent, Besigye 27 percent. Some observers point to these precedents to argue that polls need to be taken seriously.

For some, RWI’s poll show how President Museveni could lose a significant block of his supporters to his erstwhile ally former Prime Minister, Amama Mbabazi in the 2016 elections.

For others, the poll offers a grim picture for Mbabazi. When he posted 13 percent in the previous poll, he had not even picked nomination forms. Yet this poll, which comes out after he was picked as the TDA-Go Forward presidential candidate and has campaigned with the backing of Uganda’s oldest political party, the Democratic Party, for two months now shows that he has lost a percentage point to Besigye.

Repressed voices

However, Mbabazi’s supporters quickly point at a targeted campaign of infiltration, torture and harassment of supporters to argue that some of their supporters have been intimidated.

Critics of the New Vision poll point to the fact that compared to the same newspaper’s poll carried out between June 12 and June 20 last year, President Museveni’s support has not changed yet Besigye’s support has increased by 10 percentage points from 9.2 % to 19 %, and Mbabazi’s by 2 percentage points from 4 % to 6 %. They wonder where Besigye got all that support if Museveni’s who has the lion’s share lost none at all.

But even those who understand research have tended to question opinion polls.

Scholar Julius Kiiza, in his paper titled “Opinion Polls in the Spotlight: An Exercise in Deception? Opinion Polling in a Semi-Authoritarian African Polity” which was published in the book, `Elections in a hybrid regime’, notes that in the context of semi-authoritarian rule in Uganda, opinion polls are unreliable.

Kiiza’s paper is based on two Afrobarometer polls, one of which was carried out between Nov. 18 and Dec. 6 2010 and another between Jan. 20—28. 2011.

Kiiza writes that while the methodology used to arrive at the poll result was scientifically reasonable with a margin of sampling error of -+2.5 percent at a 95 percent confidence level, the research period was too short.

The limited time period becomes more serious in the light of the second problem, that is, decontextualised opinion polling, Kiiza writes.

“I argue that in Uganda, dissenting voices are repressed or discouraged, either through physical repression or internalised fear, due to the perceived ubiquitous presence of state intelligence networks at the national, institutional and community levels, or through socio-economic leverages that preferentially reward the allies’ regime,” Kiiza writes, “Without this context-specific knowledge, opinion polling becomes an exercise in deception.”

Kiiza also writes that opinion polls, like the media that happily report them, are in the business of manufacturing consent to promote vested political, economic or even ideological interests. He adds that such results, in countries characterised by patronage and semi-authoritarian politics, have the effect of making voters vote for the candidate who is presented as the likely winner or causing supporters of a candidate shown to be losing, lose morale.

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