Ugandans seem unhappy with Museveni but they don’t seem to be willing to accept his opponents either. Here is why
We are exactly six months away from elections and recent opinion polls are already giving us a glimpse of things to come. The polls reveal that there is widespread voter fatigue with President Yoweri Museveni. His popularity has fallen from 68% in 2010/11 to about 51% now. This is a borderline position that if anything adverse happens, like we see the economy slowly slipping downhill, Museveni’s margin may go further down. Such a crisis can change people’s moods, thereby increasing voter turnout. This would force Museveni into a second round, a situation he can only recover from by employing a degree of violence that forces his opponents to pull out of the election.
So what has happened to reduce Museveni’s margin? Immediately after the 2011 elections, I wrote an article: “Why Museveni won and Besigye lost and what can be done for the future” which, if you read today sounds quite prophetic. I argued then that the main opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, is able to rally his base but unable to grow it. This is because his message, even though powerful, has grown stale. His passionate attacks on the government for corruption and incompetence have become too repetitive to attract new voters looking for a more calm and sober alternative to Museveni. Since then, this new voice has emerged in Amama Mbabazi. But it has not made the fundamental difference I expected and I will explain why.
So let us step away from my self-praise and go to the polls, especially the one done by the indefatigable Patrick Wakida of Research World International. If Museveni ran against Besigye, the president would get 57% while Besigye would net 28%. Thus although Museveni’s margin will have declined by 11% since 2011, Besigye’s margin would not have grown at all. Why? Well the polls show that 6% of voters say they would not vote for either of the two while another 6% say they are undecided. This confirms my point that Besigye is able to rally the base but not grow his appeal.
However, when Museveni runs against Mbabazi, the president’s margin falls to 54% against Mbabazi’s 22%. So although Besigye gets more votes against Museveni than Mbabazi, it is Mbabazi who actually reduces the president’s margin. Mbabazi himself gets fewer votes perhaps because many Besigye supporters are unwilling to endorse him. Remember in the eyes of Besigye’s supporters, Mbabazi was for many years one with Museveni in “destroying” Uganda and terrorising them. Hence the number of people who say they would not vote for either candidate (Museveni or Mbabazi) doubles to 12% and the undecided also increases to 8%.
Contrary to our idealism (that once a leader promised to retire, he always should regardless of circumstances), Besigye was right to jump into the race. His aim was to stop Mbabazi being the joint opposition candidate. Without Besigye in the race, a large section of the opposition voters would be demobilised. So when all the three candidates are in the race, Museveni’s margin remains at a steady 54% but Besigye falls by 10% to 18% and Mbabazi falls by 8% to 14%. However, the combined opposition vote goes to 32%. Again this voter behavior confounds our idealism because it shows that the best option for the opposition is not to unite – at least not in the first round.
Yet in spite of a clear Museveni fatigue, the president is likely to win. How come? First, there has been a dramatic shift in voter attitudes. For example, Museveni is strongest in Northern Uganda where in a head-to-head contest he gets 70% against Besigye’s 16% and 68% against Mbabazi’s 14%. If Museveni runs against the two of them, he gets 67% and each one of them gets 11%. In 2006, Besigye got 83% in Northern Uganda against Museveni’s 12%. Had Museveni support remained still, his poll numbers would fall to below 40%.
But the most crippling factor for the opposition is their very weak or absent organisational presence in many parts of the country. This is evidenced in their incapacity to field candidates for parliamentary, district and lower council positions. Let us look at 2006 to get the idea. Out of 238 geographical constituencies for parliament, NRM had candidates in 236 (the other two being independents allied to it) while the largest opposition party, FDC, contested in only 186 constituencies i.e. 78%. For district chairman, FDC contested in only 73 out of 112 i.e. 65%.
The situation gets worse when one climbs down to the lower local councils. For instance, out of 1,286 LC111 chairperson positions, NRM fielded a candidate in all. FDC did 690 i.e. 54%, something that got worse the lower one went. This shows limited presence of FDC on the grassroots hence inability to rally potential supporters in these localities to its cause. And many FDC candidates were very weak reflecting the fact that they contested the seats not because they were the best but because they were the only ones available. In the FDC primaries, many had run unopposed while in NRM’s primaries the contest was stronger than in the national election. The un-attractiveness of the opposition generally is reflected in the large number of candidates who ran as independents. There was almost more than one independent candidate in every single contested position.
Finally, those who have benefited the most from Museveni’s rule (the richest one percent) and those who have benefited the least or not at all (the poorest 30%) are the ones who support him the most. Excluding these very rich citizens, the higher you climb the income and education ladders and the closer you get to urban centers, the lower is Museveni’s support. And the reverse is true.
Again this shows an important paradox: the biggest risk to Museveni is his achievements, not failures. The educated middle-class that is most hostile to him has largely been a creation of his policies in the economy and education. It shows that people with some education in urban areas are more exposed and therefore becoming more aspirational. This is the group that says it wants change. However, they also don’t seem to embrace Besigye or Mbabazi with much enthusiasm. Instead they are behaving like a woman who may be unhappy with an abusive husband and even ready to leave him but is unwilling to accept the new suitor on the block.