Uganda’s Election Result: Why Nobody is Surprised

With most of the votes from Uganda’s recent presidential election counted, it is now clear who has emerged as the victor. Yoweri Museveni, the country’s incumbent president, has come away from Thursday’s election with around 60% of the votes. His closest rival, Kizza Besigye, won around 35%. With such a huge margin of victory, one would expect Museveni to feel an immense sense of accomplishment in light his feat. But he probably doesn’t. In fact, he’s probably used to the feeling. He has beaten Besigye in the last three of the country’s presidential elections. And with this January marking his 30th year in power, he probably wasn’t surprised at all by the result of the elections. Really, no one was surprised.

Yoweri Museveni rose to power in Uganda on January 29, 1986. His rebel forces had just taken the capital, Kampala, and defeated the regime of Milton Obote. Museveni was sworn in as president and soon occupied himself with the task of putting down the various insurgencies that had sprung up across the country. Having been plagued by instability for much of its existence, Uganda could certainly use an effective leader. And effective he was. After pacifying much of Uganda, Museveni fulfilled his promise of a transition to democracy, albeit ten years late, by holding elections in 1996.

Museveni won the 1996 elections, as his previous ten years in power had been marked by enormous progress. The country had been pacified, the economy had grown, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic had been managed well. But in 2005, Museveni’s promise of democracy began to fall apart. Constitutional changes were introduced that removed presidential term limits, allowing Museveni to continue running in perpetuity. He appears to have taken full advantage of these constitutional changes, continuing to run for president and showing no signs of stopping any time soon.

Museveni’s 30 years in power, along with the constitutional changes of 2005, practically guarantee that he will win any election that he runs in. While this would not be the case if Uganda were a fully-functioning democracy, Museveni has used his time in power to make loss impossible. According to the Freedom House, which rates Uganda as “not free,” his government has used media bias to strengthen his position among the electorate, has provided him with far more funding than other candidates, and has used paramilitary groups to intimidate voters. Museveni’s grip on power is so strong that Kizza Besigye, the opposition leader, has been arrested by the government multiple times over his 15 years of political activity.

Thus it is no surprise that Museveni has emerged victorious from this election. And it will be no surprise when he emerges victorious from the next election and the one after that. He will likely remain in power as long as he maintains widespread support in the upper levels of the government. While some might not mind these anti-democratic developments in light of Uganda’s progress under Museveni’s tenure, that progress will not last forever. Why? Because as Museveni consolidates his power further, he will not need the support of Uganda’s people to remain in power. And when that happens, his policy decisions will not be based on what is best for the country. They will be based on what is best for himself.


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