Will Uganda's Election Bring Any Real Change?

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Marc Hofer / AFP / Getty Images

A poster of current Ugandan President and presidential hopeful Yoweri Museveni adorns a column at a street market in Kampala on February 17, 2011.

Since seizing power in 1986, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni has become synonymous with widespread corruption, poor infrastructure, rising unemployment and failing services such as healthcare and education. Indeed, his campaign slogan in the run-up to Friday's presidential election — "Prosperity for all, better service delivery and job creation" — is seen by many not as a promise of good things to come, but an admission of what he has not managed to achieve in his 25 years in power. And yet, polls give Museveni — one of Africa's longest-ruling leaders — a commanding 65% lead going into the vote.

So why does he seem likely to win? His opponents say Museveni's surprising popularity is all down to money. During the campaign, his National Resistance Movement (NRM) spent 10 times more than the opposition, according to an estimate by an official at Kampala branch of the National Democratic Institute, nonpartisan, non-profit organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions. Parliament also recently approved a $260 million supplementary budget, which the chairman of parliament's Public Account Committee, Nandala Mafabi, told reporters that money has mostly been allocated to bodies connected to Museveni's campaign. Observers with the Democracy Monitoring Group have reported witnessing or hearing about instances of bribery in 8.9% of their field reports, while eye-witness accounts of vote-buying are filtering in daily on the group's Uganda Watch 2011's website. And Museveni is famous for handing out cash to villagers — though his supporters say the payments are rewards for doing good work.

But the President also retains genuine popular support. "He is quite a good and amiable politician, always ready with a yarn, a joke in the local language," says Arthur George Kamya, a lawyer and political commentator. "Especially in rural areas, people eat up his ostensible 'everyman-ness'." Late last year, Museveni even recorded a rap that quickly became the country's most popular ringtone.

The opposition, on the other hand, looks tired and divided. Museveni's leading challenger is his former doctor and head of the Forum for Democratic Change, Kizza Besigye. Besigye lost to Museveni in the last two elections (which the courts ruled unfair but did nothing to overturn), and his star is waning. "For many voters, it's a case of the devil you know versus the devil you don't," says one Western observer, who requested anonymity.

Assuming Museveni wins on Friday, what's next for Uganda? Besigye has said if he loses, it will be due to vote rigging, and that he has not ruled out a violent reaction. "Expect fireworks," Besigye's spokesperson tells TIME. A less dramatic but just as serious worry is that, according to Finance Minister Syda Bbumba, the government is running out of money, not least due to the cash spent on the campaign. Days after the supplementary budget was passed, Bbumba declared: "The Secretary to the Treasury has issued a communication to all ministries and agencies informing them about the cash limitation." Right now, the Ugandan shilling is at an all-time low against the dollar.

Oil, it is hoped, will address some of the nation's financial shortcomings. More than two billion barrels have been discovered in west Uganda in the last few years and the government expects revenues to come on stream soon. The World Bank says the find could double government revenue within six-to-10 years, which would contribute up to 15% of GDP — in theory, something that could all but end Uganda's dependency on donor aid, which accounts for around 30% of the country's budget. But so far the deal with Western oil companies has been shrouded in secrecy and analysts suspect that the Ugandan government — with its history of corruption — will not use the money to invest in the country.

Despite all of this, the West may still be hoping that Museveni wins on Friday. U.S. officials once hailed Museveni as a new kind of African leader; more recently, the West has grown critical of his autocratic tendencies and the corruption in his party. But Museveni has his uses. Ugandan soldiers make up the bulk of the 6,200-strong African Union force fighting the extreme Islamist al-Shabab in Somalia; twin al-Shabab bomb attacks on Kampala last July only seemed to strengthen Museveni's resolve, and more Ugandan troops are expected to arrive in Mogadishu soon. The U.S. and Europe also need Uganda's support in efforts to locate and destroy the Lord's Resistance Army, a small Christian cannibalistic cult rebel army which is originally from Uganda but has been wreaking havoc in neighboring Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.

With the public falling for Museveni's charms and the West keeping quiet to protect its interests, it seems Ugandans' hopes for a decent government will remain on hold for some time to come.