Rigging favours the strong
Within the context of Ugandan politics (and indeed politics in many nations of Sub Sahara Africa), there will always be allegations of the unfairness of the electoral process and vote rigging and intimidation. But if all those who rigged elections in Africa won them, then our continent would never have witnessed the defeat of incumbents. Countries like Senegal, Kenya, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Benin, Zambia, Malawi, Republic of Congo, etc. have witnessed the defeat of an incumbent at the polls. Their experience offers lessons to our opposition even though the conditions are different.
Two things are critical. First, rigging favors the strong. If you are weak, it is hard to rig elections because you cannot stuff ballot boxes at polling stations where the vast majority of voters hate you. Therefore, anyone who rigs elections and wins means they still enjoy substantial support among the populace. Second, because Museveni enjoys effective personal control over the core institutions of state, the opposition has to win elections that are neither free nor fair and where the ground is heavily tilted in favor of the incumbent.
For the last 20 years when Museveni has contested elections, the opposition has accused him of rigging. Over these two decades, one would have expected the opposition to develop mechanisms to defeat Museveni’s rigging machinery or boycott elections. The opposition is caught in a Catch 22 situation. It has either to accept the rules and practices of the game and thereby legitimise an unfair process or refuse to participate and thereby lose an opportunity to use the electoral process to make its case to the people of Uganda.
Finally, throughout January and February, I witnessed Museveni weaknesses and strengths as I drove 3,700km across the entire length and breadth of Uganda, holding what Americans call “Town Hall Meetings” in urban and rural trading centers. I would stop in big and small towns and trading centers, invite people to discussions about the elections. Crowds would gather around me and animated debates would ensue. The participants were overwhelmingly young males aged between 16 and 35 years.
With the exception of Northern Uganda, most young males were passionately pro-Besigye. However, wherever there were women and old people (except for Northern Uganda), they tended to support Museveni. These discussions were illuminating to me. First they discredited Besigye’s claims that Ugandans are afraid to express their political choice especially to pollsters for fear of the state. The young men who surrounded me across the country argued with passion for Besigye, often forcefully silencing Museveni’s supporters where they were in a minority.
Secondly, I learnt that there is widespread Museveni fatigue, even among the president’s supporters. There is also widespread disaffection over the lack of poor quality of public goods and services. Across the country people complained of rampant corruption, lack of drugs in hospitals, of poor education services and bad roads. However, I learnt during these Town Hall Meetings that there is a lot government can do to engage citizens and communicate to them regarding the challenges it faces.
In fact poor communication between government and citizens explains the high anti-incumbency bias we saw in the elections. It affected powerful NRM and opposition candidates alike. Up to 19 ministers in Museveni’s cabinet suffered the wrath of the voters. And five senior FDC MPs including the leader of the opposition suffered a similar fate. The lesson is that Museveni may choose not to listen to Besigye but, to govern effectively, the president will need to listen seriously to the voices of those who voted Besigye. If he does not, he will have set himself into a dangerous path.