Ugandans vote. Will their 35-year-old president win again?

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Ugandans began voting on Thursday in a hotly contested election that will decide whether President Yoweri Museveni will win a sixth term and continue his 35-year reign in the country or whether he is overthrown by one of 10 rivals, including a main opposition candidate, Bobi Wine, a rapper turned lawmaker.

The vote, which was surprisingly competitive despite the government’s fierce attempts to stifle opposition, gained worldwide attention as a test of how democracy could take hold in a country more accustomed to autocratic rule. . The election is the fourth in the East African country since the reestablishment of multiparty politics in 2005, two decades after Museveni came to power and cracked down on competing parties.

The poll also comes months after the government introduced tough rules to stem the coronavirus pandemic – measures that have kept the number of confirmed cases below 38,000, but which human rights groups say have been used to quell criticism and restrict political gatherings.

In a campaign marked by violence, killings and arbitrary arrests, observers will monitor delays in handing out ballots, intimidation of voters and irregularities in the vote count, as well as possible unrest that could arise. in the next few days. The election results are expected on Saturday evening.

More than 18 million voters have registered for the election, where they will vote for presidential, parliamentary and local representatives. There are 11 presidential candidates vying for Uganda’s leadership over the next five years, and a candidate must win more than 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off.

The most prominent among them is the outgoing president, Mr. Museveni, a former rebel who came to power in January 1986 and who rules the country with an iron fist. At 76, Mr. Museveni is one of Africa’s oldest leaders.

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His main rival is Mr. Wine, a 38-year-old musician who was elected to Parliament in 2017. Mr. Wine, real name Robert Kyagulanyi, has long used his music to deplore the state of the country under Mr. Museveni and aims to galvanize the youth vote to overthrow it. During the campaign, security forces beat and gassed Mr Wine and he was indicted in court for flouting the coronavirus rules.

In early January, he filed a petition with the International Criminal Court accusing Museveni’s government of authorizing a wave of violence against political figures and human rights lawyers – including attempts to kill him .

Other candidates for the election were also targeted, including Patrick Amuriat, who represents the Forum for Democratic Change party. Authorities beat and detained Mr. Amuriat on several occasions, including the day he applied in November.

Nancy Kalembe Linda, a former banker and news anchor, is the only female presidential candidate.

Since Uganda’s independence from Britain in 1962, there has been no peaceful transfer of power. When Mr Museveni took the reins in 1986, on the back of an armed uprising, he vowed that his government would advance the cause of competitive politics in a nation that had endured years of colonialism, then dictatorship and d anarchy under the domination of both. Milton Obote and Idi Amin.

But in the decades that followed, Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement clung to power through politicized prosecutions of opposition figures, while undermining independent media and civil society.

In 2018, Mr Museveni signed a law that repealed the presidential age limit of 75, a move that critics say got him re-elected this year. Lawmakers and opposition lawyers challenged the amendment, but the Supreme Court upheld it in 2019.

Since the campaign was launched in early November, journalists have been subjected to harassment and beatings by security forces while covering opposition candidates. Authorities introduced strict accreditation rules for journalists and expelled at least one foreign crew, according to the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists.

Opposition candidates, including Mr Wine, say they have been prevented by authorities from showing up on radio stations to speak to the public.

With limits on public gatherings due to pandemic restrictions, “social media has provided candidates with a potential means of reaching large numbers of potential voters,” said Jamie Hitchen, an independent researcher who has studied the role of technology in African elections.

But the government quickly found ways to undermine their reach on these platforms as well. In December, the government asked Google to block 14 YouTube channels, mostly linked to the opposition. Mr Museveni also announced this week that he had ordered Facebook to be blocked in the country days after the company deleted fake accounts linked to its re-election campaign.

As voters went to the polls on Thursday, Internet connectivity continued to decline across Uganda as the government ordered telecommunications companies to block access to social media platforms and online messaging apps.

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For a long time, Mr. Museveni and his party have presented themselves as a bulwark against a return to the violence and political conflicts that shaped Uganda in the 1970s and 1980s. But with over 75% of the population under 30 years, many young people no longer “live in the shadows of history,” said Professor Peterson of the University of Michigan.

“They have different aspirations, fears and different ambitions” than voters of old, he added.

One of the main concerns of young people is the question of employment. About 700,000 Ugandans reach working age each year, but only 75,000 new jobs are created each year, according to the World Bank. Many are also frustrated by the corruption that has plagued Mr Museveni’s government for decades, and they yearn for better infrastructure and improved public services, including better educational opportunities and affordable health care.

Previous elections in Uganda have been marred by irregularities as well as reports of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation and voter fraud. Voters across the country were also denied the opportunity to vote, with officials saying their names were not on the voters lists. Ballots in opposition strongholds, including in the capital Kampala, have also been cast very late in the past.

The validity of this election is already in question after the withdrawal of observers, including the United States, for lack of accreditation. There have also been reports of the failure of electronic voter identification systems due to the Internet shutdown.

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