Museveni Tested by His Own Democracy

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  • Read Later No opposition parties are allowed in Yoweri Museveni's Uganda, but he is facing five rivals in Monday's presidential election — is there any chance he'll be voted out?

Simon Robinson: It's certainly possible. My gut feeling is that he'll win in the first round, but for the first time that's not certain. He has to win more than 50 percent of the vote to take the election in the first round, otherwise he'll face a runoff. And a runoff would leave him more vulnerable, because it will consolidate opposition votes currently divided among five candidates. His nearest rival, Dr. Kizza Besigye, would have a better chance in a runoff. But Museveni will probably still win. He's certainly feeling cocky — he gave a press conference on Sunday during which he said the question of him not winning was "hypothetical."

Is there any suspicion of irregularities at the polls?

Bessigye's camp has complained that the elections are not fair, but they're referring to the fact that opposition candidates were given only limited resources by the state, while Museveni as president obviously has the entire machinery of state at his disposal for campaign purposes. But there have been no serious accounts of vote rigging thus far. The election is being closely watched by a large number of monitors from the European Union, the Commonwealth and democracy groups, and they're usually pretty quick about sounding the alarm when an election is being rigged. They've not raised any serious concern so far.

So despite the absence of political parties, there's still some form of democracy in Uganda?

Absolutely. The system Museveni created, which is called the "movement system," forbids political parties, in order to allow voters to assess each candidate on his or her own merits. And in some ways, it has worked a lot better than many of Africa's multiparty democracies. Many observers in fact believe that Uganda one of the liveliest democracies on the continent. The parliament, for example, is anything but a rubber stamp, vigorously debating legislation and often contradicting the president. So it's not democracy as we know it in the West, but it's a lively democracy nonetheless.

What are the major issues at stake in the election?

The big one is the war in Congo, which is very unpopular at home — many Ugandans believe it's simply a way for generals and politicians to make money. And then there's poverty. Although the percentage of Ugandans living in absolute poverty has been reduced from more than 50 percent to a little over 30 percent since Museveni came to power, that's still a large number of very poor people who want to see improvements. And that feeds into the issue of corruption, which even Museveni concedes is on the rise in his government.

So these are Bessigye's themes?

Yes, he's campaigning against corruption, promising more accountability and a withdrawal from Congo. But of course he's unproven, and nobody knows what might change if he won. Also, he's not saying Museveni has been all bad, but simply charging that he's become arrogant in recent years and allowing more corruption. And Museveni's supporters are chanting "No change" wherever he goes. A Bessigye victory could create an interesting situation for Uganda, although in Africa it can take a couple of years for the consequences of a change at the top to be felt. But Museveni will probably win in the first round. And of course he'll be able to say that a peaceful, relatively clean election shows that his system works.