Uganda's Upcoming Presidential Elections

Posted in Africa | 22-Jul-05 | Author: Joel Meyer

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni

As a land-locked country bordered by such traditionally woeful states as Sudan, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda has managed to sustain some of the highest annual economic growth rates in Africa. President Yoweri Museveni has engineered not only these economic successes but also has engineered a developing democracy in Uganda. But with international challenges to Kampala's slow transition to multiparty democracy and with controversy over Museveni's push for a third presidential term, Uganda's democratic development faces daunting challenges in the year leading up to the 2006 general elections.

The Movement and Museveni

Uganda's turbulent political path since independence in 1962 mirrors that of many former African colonies. Civil war, military dictatorship, inter-tribal violence, famine, stunted economic growth, and HIV/AIDS have all dominated Uganda at various times during its four decades of independence. In the midst of these harsh conditions, Uganda's economy failed to develop and poverty persisted. It was only when Museveni's armed resistance overthrew Milton Obote's second dictatorship that stability became a possibility.

Museveni's National Resistance Army captured Kampala in 1986. In 1987, when Museveni accepted the first of a series of International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) conditional aid packages, Uganda began the path toward the economic and political success for which the country is now known. The Ugandan government under Museveni tightened its budgetary belt, declared fighting poverty as its primary goal, and instituted an anti-HIV/AIDS program that has become an international model. In return, it has received substantial multilateral aid from the World Bank, United Nations, E.U., and I.M.F., and also bilateral aid from donor countries such as the United Kingdom, Uganda's leading bilateral donor, and NGOs. Foreign aid, which totaled $800 million in the fiscal year ending in June 2003, currently funds nearly half of Uganda's annual budget.

Supported by the international community, Museveni has accumulated a long list of achievements in the nearly two decades since coming to power: the dramatic decline in HIV/AIDS incidence rates from a high of 15 percent in 1991 to 5 percent as of 2001 according to UNAIDS, a 20 percentage point reduction in the poverty rate due to consistently high levels of annual economic development, and the development of a nascent electoral democracy. Despite his failure to deal effectively with the devastating civil war in the north between Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (L.R.A.) and the Ugandan armed forces (U.P.D.F.), including reports of government human rights abuses, his two decades in power have left him a popular politician in his own country.

While its economic and social development surged ahead, Uganda pursued a unique course of political development. Instead of a Western-style multiparty democracy, the 1995 constitution that remains in effect today instituted the National Resistance Movement, known as the Movement. Drawing on the intense suspicion of political parties and sectarian politics, the Movement severely restricts the operations of parties, requiring that candidates for all offices stand independently, competing on their own merits. The Movement also set aside seats in parliament for women.

Although critics both inside and outside Uganda accuse the Movement of being a front for a one-party state, the fact that a significant minority of current parliamentarians were elected on a platform of opposition to the Movement system demonstrates the modest success of the system. Also unique in modern Ugandan political history, the opposition parties in the Movement system have to this point pursued their agenda through peaceful means. Indeed, a recent International Republican Institute poll showed that nearly 70 percent of the electorate views the Movement as a democracy, and it is by far the longest running political system in Uganda's history since independence.

Uncertainty in the Multiparty Referendum

Uganda's 1995 constitution stipulated referendums at five-year intervals on the continued use of the Movement system. The 2000 referendum overwhelmingly supported the Movement, but extremely low levels of turnout, particularly in the war-ravaged north, weakened the Movement's rationale of inclusiveness. The upcoming referendum on July 28 faces an uncertain fate. Although Museveni already employs a special advisor on the transition to multiparty democracy and is actively campaigning for a multiparty victory, the result of the referendum is not certain. While a May 2005 poll by the Daily Monitor, Uganda's leading independent daily, showed support at 64 percent for switching to a multiparty system, potential voter boycotts could weaken the legitimacy of any outcome.

Despite this uncertainty, it is generally accepted that Uganda will eventually become a multiparty democracy. This inexorable transition is largely due to pressure from international donors. Uganda remains a donor-reliant state and the international community has used that leverage to push for the development of a multiparty system. In recent months, the U.K. has withheld $10 million in aid due to concerns over insufficient progress toward multiparty democracy, and Ireland is considering doing the same. A recent World Bank report, however, focused instead on Museveni's push for a third presidential term as a potential cause of political instability in the near future.

Debates Over a Third Term

As Museveni runs up against the limits of his constitutionally mandated two presidential terms, the Ugandan Parliament recently voted by a margin of 232 to 50 to lift the two term limit mandate found in the constitution. This will allow Museveni to stand again in the 2006 general elections, scheduled for February 12, for Uganda's highest office. If Museveni decides to stand, he is all but reassured victory in 2006.

Museveni argues that the National Resistance Movement is the only viable alternative in the face of weak and ineffectual opposition. But Museveni's detractors, including several possible 2006 opponents, believe that this is merely an excuse to establish a de facto dictatorship. All of Uganda's successes during the past two decades could be ruined by a third Museveni term, they argue, although some feel that for a country that has thrived for so long under one president, the specter of new leadership is as unsettling as a third Museveni term.

While this process has yet to be played out, the World Bank report found the situation dire enough to warn that a third term could potentially lead to civil war. This conclusion is somewhat premature, but the risks posed to stability in Uganda are substantial. These uncertainties will define the run-up to the 2006 elections.


While the conflict in the north continues to yield severe humanitarian atrocities and hinder economic development in the affected regions, the gathering discontent over Uganda's political development poses a grave threat to the future of the Ugandan success story. The outcome of the July 28 referendum -- along with the donor community's reaction to the results -- and the effects of Parliament's vote on ending term limits could either throw the country into political and economic crisis or create the conditions for continued growth. While Museveni has guided Uganda to remarkable growth in the past two decades, his own actions in the next seven months will be the single greatest factor in determining Uganda's future success or failure.

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