Africa, Headlines

POLITICS-UGANDA: A Contentious Victory for Museveni

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Feb 27 2006 (IPS) - Opposition supporters have rejected Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s victory in general elections held last Thursday – the first multi-party poll to take place in the country in over 20 years.

Figures from the electoral commission showed the head of state as having won 59 percent of ballots cast to determine the new president – against the 37 percent garnered by his main rival, Kizza Besigye. Other candidates included Miria Obote, wife of former head of state Milton Obote, who stood on a Uganda People’s Congress ticket, and John Ssebana Kizito – the Democratic Party representative.

The results ran contrary to opinion polls, which had suggested a tight contest between Museveni and Besigye.

However, the president and his National Resistance Movement (NRM) performed poorly in certain regions, notably northern and eastern Uganda, where political instability, poverty, under-development and disease are at their most acute.

“The voting pattern in the parliamentary elections in the north and east was mainly a statement of anger against Museveni’s government. In most cases it had nothing to do with the performance of (a) particular MP (member of parliament),” says political commentator Emmy Allio.

Government has been at war with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda since 1986. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, over 20,000 children have been killed by the LRA, or abducted to serve as soldiers and sex slaves in the movement. The rebel group claims to be fighting for a society based on the Biblical 10 commandments.

Figures released by the World Health Organisation last year showed that at least 1,000 people were dying each week in camps for more than 20,000 persons displaced by rebel activity – this as a result of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other illnesses.

While Museveni is credited with having turned the tide against AIDS in Uganda, HIV prevalence in the north is double the national average of six percent, according to health ministry figures.

The head of state also found himself without support in the capital.

Kampala voted for Besigye, who has dismissed the overall outcome of the poll, saying events before the election undermined his bid for the presidency. Various criminal charges were brought against the opposition leader in 2005 that related to treason, terrorism and rape, prompting his arrest. Besigye was only released on bail after campaigning for last week’s vote had got underway.

International observers said the election itself was largely free and fair, although the opposition has alleged irregularities at the polls. Besigye now reportedly plans to challenge the election results in court.

Museveni has also been applauded for introducing universal primary education during his 20-year rule, as well as for putting Uganda’s economy on an even keel and being generally tolerant of a free press.

However, James Tumusiime, editor of the ‘Weekly Observer’ newspaper, says the outcome of last week’s vote should give the president pause for thought.

“It’s quite clear that although the president and his party have won, they still have a lot of ground to cover. They have lost a lot of ground in northern and eastern Uganda as well as in the central region, which was not the case years ago,” he noted.

“If they don’t put things right, then in five years time it is possible that they could slide to 49 per cent and that would not be enough for them to sail through.”

For a candidate to win presidential polls in Uganda, he or she must gain at least 51 percent of the vote – failing which a second round of elections takes place.

Presidential press secretary Onapito Ekilomoit acknowledged declining support for the NRM in eastern Uganda – but added that demands for improved services in this region would be met.

“People are asking for social services and we are working on that. As for the people in the north, we have to convince them that their lives are improving,” he said.

Tumusiime sees the Forum for Democratic Change, headed by Besigye, as a party of great promise – despite the fact that its candidate lost.

“(The) party is hardly a year old. For a party that young to have put up such a fight and taken the battle right to the door of the NRM, which has been around for 20 years, is something remarkable,” he noted. “In five years time they will be a force to reckon with.”

Almost 70 percent of Uganda’s 10.4 million registered voters were estimated to have turned out for the poll.

Uganda’s constitution was altered last year to allow Museveni to stand for a third term; this prompted a cut in aid from donors disgruntled by the president’s efforts to remain in power.

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