President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for thirty years, and his determination to stay in office shows no signs of dissipating. Having removed presidential term-limits, rumours abound that if he wins the presidential elections – schedule for 18 February – he will look to remove the age limit the constitution sets for presidents, which currently stands at 75 years. Museveni is currently 71, so any effort to remove the limit would be clear evidence that he intends to stand in the next but one election, scheduled for 2012.
That, of course, all depends on Museveni defeating his long time rival Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and his newest rival, Amama Mbabazi of the Go Forward movement. Initially the candidacy of Mbabazi looked like it might generate a fresh challenge for the incumbent. Having been Museveni’s right hand man up until very recently, Mbabazi was said to have vast financial resources, and to have lined up a number of heavyweights within the ruling party who were waiting for the fight moment to defect.
But the Mbabazi effect has yet to materialise. The anticipated flood of defections turned out to only be a trickle, and even that has now dried up. Go Forward has also struggled to match the expenditure of other parties. According to the Alliance for Campaign Finance and Monitoring, the NRM was responsible for 88% of all campaign related expenditure in November and December; by contrast, only 1.1% was attributable to the Mbabazi campaign. Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that a number of opinion polls have found that he is trailing well behind the other two candidates, on somewhere between 5 and 15% – although all such surveys are controversial in Uganda.
Significantly, the evidence of campaign spending collected by ACFIM suggests that, despite his protestations, Mbabazi may be aware that his race is over and have decided to keep some of his resources back for another day. In contrast to the NRM, whose expenditure increased by 72% between November and December, and the FDC, which ramped up its outlay by 25%, Go Forward reduced its monthly spend by 23%.
Of course, this does not mean that President Museveni is assured of victory. Besigye remains a formidable opponent and has been mobilizing vast rallies across the country, particularly in urban areas. Moreover, turning established practice on its head, Besigye’s supporters have started to give him money at rallies. Although the sums involved are fairly small, their symbolic importance is considerable.
However, despite Besigye’s broad popularity, Museveni remains the favourite. He controls the security forces and has a reasonably effective state apparatus at his disposal, including the “Crime Preventers”, a volunteer force recruited and managed by the police that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have argued should be suspended for the elections to allow for a free and fair poll. The NRM can also afford to outspend the other parties 9 to 1. And, of course, Museveni appoints the electoral commission.
In the absence of a level playing field, it seems likely that Museveni will “win” another commanding victory. Whether this is fairly earned or not, the margin of victory is likely to play an important role in shaping the presidents attitude to his future, and that of his country. If he is seen to have comfortably defeated not only his old rival but also his newest challenger, the president is more likely to feel that he can force through another term in office. However, this would not be a popular move with many Ugandans. According to the Afrobarometer, 85% of Ugandans want president term-limits to be reintroduced.