Ugandan opposition parties are faced with a familiar conundrum—fairly sure that the election they just lost was rigged, but unsure how to prove it.
There is evidence that President Yoweri Museveni’s main challenger, Kizza Besigye of the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), made significant gains in many parts of the country, especially urban areas. It is also clear that intimidation and repression were widespread, including the repeated detention of Besigye in the weeks of and after polling day. But neither domestic courts nor international election monitors are likely to declare an election unfree or unfair on the basis of this kind of background manipulation, although both the European Union and U.S. State Department found the election process to be marked by a lack of transparency and worrying irregularities. At the end of the day, it is only hard evidence of ballot box stuffing or faulty vote tallying that is likely to sway them.
So, do the results, published by the Electoral Commission (EC) in almost complete form towards the end of February, point to a rigged election? And if so, how was it done?
When evaluating election results it is important to keep in mind two questions:
Is there clear evidence of rigging that systematically benefitted one side over another?
Was this rigging sufficient to change the result of the election?
In many elections, we see one of these questions answered affirmatively but not the other. In the Ugandan context, Museveni officially received 60.62 percent of the vote, with Besigye on 35.61 percent—a gap of almost 2.5 million votes. So, with these two questions in mind, what do the results tell us?
The results: Election rigging, Ugandan style
As expected, urban areas including Kampala voted overwhelmingly for the opposition, with Besigye winning a presidential majority in 14 constituencies, up from just 4 in 2011. These results fit with reports by journalists and commentators during the campaign. But in other ways, the election results appear far-fetched. In national elections, it is practically impossible that 100 percent of registered voters at a particular polling station would turn out to vote. Yet the results for this election show a high number of such cases clustered in particular areas.
In Kiruhura District—in the heartland of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM)—67 polling stations logged highly improbable turnouts of 100 percent. Forty-three of those stations made the even more dubious claim of 100 percent of votes in favor of the incumbent. In the same district, a further 59 stations recorded turnout of between 98 and 99.99 percent of the registered voters. The total turnout in Kiruhura District was 86.87 percent, contributing more than 120,000 votes for the president or 91.35 percent of the district’s total valid ballots. In Nakaseke District, two sub-counties had 14 stations between them with 100 percent turnout and 100 percent of the votes in favor of the incumbent out of a total of 29 polling stations. Taken in total, all the polling stations across the two sub-counties recorded a 97 percent turnout, with over 97 percent of the valid votes going to Museveni. This pattern was repeated across multiple other districts.
The suspect results tend to come from rural districts—where media coverage and opposition party networks are generally weaker—and NRM strongholds, where opposition party agents are least likely to feel safe in monitoring procedures. The results suggest an election rigged in favor of one side, and with significant attention paid to where manipulation was—and was not—likely to be detected.
But this conclusion is cold comfort to opposition parties for two reasons. Firstly, the NRM has been careful to prevent so-called over-voting. Vote inflation looks to have been used to ensure 100 percent turnout and 100 percent support for Museveni, but no polling station recorded a turnout of over 100 percent, and so no electoral offense is represented, strictly speaking. Second, the total votes cast at these polling stations was considerably smaller than the overall gap between the two candidates. This evidence therefore fails to prove that Museveni got less votes than Besigye. Further data would be required for this, but it is extremely difficult to collect, and in spite of some questionable results there is little of the kind of hard evidence that would be needed to persuade a court of law.
In part, this is because of the strategies employed by the NRM government since voting ended. Ballot stuffing was reported in a number of districts, but it is the opaque transmission of results from polling stations to district tallying centers and then to the National Tallying Centre that has raised the most questions regarding the reliability of the Electoral Commission’s counting process. Attempts by the opposition to collate their own results were thwarted by police raids of party tallying centers, the seizure of computers and equipment, and the alleged intimidation and disappearances of party agents.
The EC is also culpable. Three weeks after the election, the commission still hasn’t released the results of the parliamentary vote—this would provide an opportunity to cross check the high levels of voter turnout in the presidential polls. In Kiruhura in the 2011 election, 22.45 percent more voters participated in the presidential elections than the parliamentary ballot, despite both being held simultaneously. Opposition candidate Amama Mbabazi and his movement are challenging the results in court with a petition that must be decided by March 31, but the case has been hampered by a suspicious robbery at their lawyers’ chambers by 30 assailants—some reportedly in police uniform—in which only the election case files and relevant computers were taken.
A warning sign for the NRM
A danger of election rigging, even if it does not change the actual result, is that it undermines the credibility of the government. This has clearly happened in Uganda, where Besigye has won a moral, if not an actual, victory. Rigged results also distort information on government popularity, potentially leading to a false sense of achievement and the low prioritization of much needed reforms.
Moving away from the overall figures, which show an overwhelming victory for Museveni, voting patterns in polling stations at police posts, stations and barracks tell a story of a ruling party in decline. In Gulu, at the barracks housing for police and their families, the station polled 62 percent in favor of the opposition leader, higher than the district total of 50.67 percent. In Ntungamo, at the police headquarters, votes for the opposition were particularly high—53.66 percent relative to the district total of 30.74 percent.
Typically, polling stations like these reflect the broader patterns of the communities in which they are based. If police are voting in large numbers at these stations, they are likely also voting for the opposition in numbers similar to the rest of their communities, potentially calling the loyalty of the police force into question. This hasn’t gone unnoticed, with police officers and their families being evicted from some quarters in suspected retribution for their voting choices. Police loyalty is particularly important for a regime that is increasingly reliant on coercion during periods of insecurity, such as elections. It might also mean a more prominent role for a better-resourced and more dependable enforcer—the military.
Ultimately, the 2016 poll suggests that the Ugandan state is less secure in its electoral legitimacy, opting to ensure favorable outcomes through subversive means. It seems clear that there was vote inflation, but this is unlikely to result in either observers or the courts intervening to challenge the final result, as opposition parties face the incredibly difficult task of trying to prove that it was sufficient to change the poll’s outcome. Yet although Museveni may have been declared the winner again, he is unlikely to rest easy in the knowledge that his mandate, and hence his legitimacy, is on the wane.
Nicole Beardsworth is a political analyst at the University of Warwick. Nic Cheeseman is associate professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford and the co-editor of the journal African Affairs.
Nicole tweets @nixiib and Nic tweets @fromagehomme.