Using robust data, it is theoretically possible but realistically improbable Besigye can- not just win, but force Museveni to a second round.
On February 18th, Ugandans will go to the polls to elect a new president. All the last three elections have been a two-horse race between incumbent Yoweri Museveni and his main challenger. In 1996 it was Paul Ssemogerere and in 2001 and 2006, Kizza Besigye. In all these elections, other candidates have had little impact on the race; in 1996 and 2006 spoilt votes were more than the votes of all the other candidates combined. Therefore, going by precedent, this too may be a two-horse race between Museveni and Besigye.
Both Museveni and Besigye face significant threats and vulnerabilities. For Museveni, his biggest vulnerability (which may also be his best asset) is that 3.5 million new voters have been registered since 2006. Over 90 percent of these voters must be aged 18 to 23 years. This is the demographic that does not appreciate Museveni’s achievements of restoring stability and is therefore most hostile to him. His rap may have endeared them to him, but he cannot be sure.
Secondly, over one million new voters have been registered in central region, the area where Museveni’s vote may be undermined by his fights with Mengo. Of these, 700,000 were registered in Kampala and Wakiso districts alone – the most urbanised parts of Uganda. These are youths who are educated and have access to the media. In 2006, Museveni lost Kampala to Besigye and got an almost equal number of votes in Wakiso. Therefore, on all counts the newly registered voters could be trouble for Museveni.
The Museveni campaign hopes to increase its margin in the north to compensate for its diminished appeal in Buganda. However, this is a risky move because only 630,000 new voters have been registered in that region. Besides, the north has the least number of voters in the country (2.3m compared to the West with 3.6m, East 3.4m, Central 4.5m); the lowest voter turnout (66 percent like Central) and the highest number of invalid votes (5.2 percent). Then between 2001 and 2006, Museveni’s absolute vote count fell by 20 percent from 5m to 4m. The president has a big challenge.
However, the newly registered voters could be ghosts created to give Museveni advantage. Indeed, 830,000 new voters are in Western Uganda which is not only Museveni’s base but also the region that always has the highest voter turnout (78 percent in 2001 and 75 percent 2006). However, most of the new voters are concentrated in urban areas where Museveni is weaker, making it harder for him to rig the election. Besides, Besigye has better organisational capability this time around and several times more financial resources than he commanded in 2006. This gives him ability to monitor many more polling stations and minimise the risk of election theft.
Before Besigye can celebrate this positive information, he too faces even more risks in this campaign. First, he is lacking momentum right now because there is nothing novel about his campaign (unlike in 2001) or messianic (like in 2006) to generate attention around his candidature and drum up enthusiasm and public sympathy for his cause. On the contrary, there seems to be widespread apathy in the electorate that may lead to low voter turnout. This will work in favour of Museveni. He has more money and can command the state machinery to rally his supporters to show up and vote for him. Secondly, low voter turnout will increase his opportunities to rig.
Besigye should worry because the media are not covering him as they did in 2006, another sign of his fledgling appeal. For example, the day after his arrest in 2005, Daily Monitor sold an unprecedented 48,000 copies. For most of the rest of the campaign period, Daily Monitor sustained average sales of 36,000 copies per day throughout the campaign season – beating New Vision in market share for the first time. Today, Daily Monitor is giving Besigye little coverage and its daily copy sales are about 18,000. Meanwhile, New Vision which is unashamedly campaigning for Museveni has grown its circulation from 28,000 to 33,000 during this campaign season.
Voter apathy in this race is also demonstrated in the fact that both Daily Monitor and New Vision sold more copies during the World Cup and during the release of UPE results than in covering the campaign. Yet in 2006 nothing could beat Besigye in copy sales. In fact, out of 62 issues of Daily Monitor between December 1st 2005 and January 31st 2006, the name Besigye was a headline in 53; in New Vision it was 57.
In that campaign season, Besigye got a big boost in news coverage from being arrested. He was not only news headlines everyday in the print media but also on all radio and television stations in the country. This gave him name recognition and a sizeable sympathy vote. It also kept his campaign alive even when he was in jail; making him a super star. What therefore seemed his main handicap i.e. inability to appear at his rallies, was actually his greatest asset. All this is missing in this election.
Average voter turnout since 1996 has been 70 percent. This year Uganda has 13.8m registered voters. Because of voter apathy, voter turnout may fall to 65 percent nationally i.e. 9m voters. This means that the decisive advantage lies with a candidate with money and a machine to get his supporters out to vote. Even if Besigye is able to out-campaign him, Museveni’s ability to outspend his rival will mean a lot. Museveni will need about 4.5m votes to win the election in the first round.
Here is Besigye’s only chance – not to win the election – just to force Museveni into a second round. Basing on the 2006 presidential election results, assume that Museveni grows his vote in the north from 22 to 30 percent. Besigye will need to push Museveni from 75 to 65 percent in the West; then push him from 60 to 50 percent in the East and from 58 to 45 percent in Buganda. Only then can Besigye get 4.4m (48 percent) against Museveni’s 4.5m (49 percent) forcing the president into a second round. This is theoretically possible but realistically improbable.