Voting Largely Orderly in Uganda

Friday, February 18, 2011

“I’m voting for change,” he said.

Mr. Kibwami, along with many others here in Uganda’s capital, voted for the leading opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, who is trying to unseat President Yoweri Museveni, in power for the past 25 years.

But while the opposition has made some inroads into urban areas, Mr. Museveni was running strong in the countryside, where the vast majority of Uganda’s voters live.

This country of about 33 million people is holding presidential and parliamentary elections, and the voting seemed to mostly proceed in an orderly, albeit slow, fashion on Friday, with millions flocking to the polls starting at the crack of dawn.

There were a few sporadic flare-ups of violence, with at least one person killed and several injured in confrontations between opposition and governing party supporters. In one episode in eastern Uganda, witnesses said that government soldiers opened fire on the convoy of a popular opposition politician, wounding 10. The day before, a campaign worker was beaten to death by political rivals, leading to the arrest of a candidate for Parliament.

In Kampala on Friday, people stood quietly in long, snaking lines in front of schools, government offices and churches. In most places, the voting was done outside, in dusty lots and grassy fields, where poll workers squeezed into tiny desks borrowed from elementary schools.

There were complaints of some polling stations opening late, and one Western observer reported suspicious activity at a location near a military base where ballot boxes were full of votes before the official opening time, 7 a.m. The government also sought to censor text messages during the elections, seeking to block words it thought might incite unrest, like “Egypt” or “bullet,” according to news reports.

Mr. Museveni, a former rebel leader who seized power in 1986, has tried to cultivate a folksy, avuncular image as the father of modern Uganda and the one who lifted it out of years of civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. He seems to have successfully merged, in the eyes of many voters, the state with himself. Several voters said they could not imagine anyone else leading the country.

“The other candidates are just troublemakers,” said Ramadan Ali Kasule, a vendor of secondhand shoes. “I’m voting for the president. Anybody else could take us back to war.” By Friday evening, the counting had begun, with poll workers emptying plastic tubs of ballots, methodically unfolding them, holding them up to show to the observers and then tallying the numbers. Preliminary results are expected Saturday or Sunday.

Some people here have been talking about Egyptian-style protests if Mr. Museveni’s agents try to rig the election. The opposition has accused the president of rigging before. But when pressed, several young Ugandans admitted that they were scared to hit the streets in the presence of security forces deployed in great numbers around the country. Soldiers with Kalashnikovs were lounging on the corners of just about every major avenue here.

At the end of the day, many young people said, Uganda was much different from Egypt, where protesters managed to push out a longstanding ruler. “Egypt’s more developed,” said Denis Muhangi, a veterinarian. “Those people know their rights. But out here in the countryside, all they care about is peace. They can be bought for salt and 10,000 shillings,” about $4. He was referring to the Ugandan practice — common across much of Africa — in which candidates crisscross the rural areas in four-wheel-drive trucks before elections, sprinkling wads of money wherever they go.