KAMPALA, Uganda — As dawn broke recently, hundreds of supporters descended on the city center wearing red, yellow and green — the colors of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change — and jostled to catch a glimpse of their presidential candidate, Kizza Besigye, before a day of campaigning.
“We need change, and change has finally come,” Vincent Semakula, 25, a party supporter, said amid the cheering crowd. “I have never seen another president since I was born. I think it’s time we give another leader a chance.”
But the clouds have grown increasingly ominous ahead of the vote Thursday that could give President Yoweri Museveni, who has held power for 30 years, another five-year term.
Mr. Besigye, a retired army colonel who broke with the president after serving in his Cabinet, was briefly detained and one of his supporters fatally shot in clashes with police at a rally Monday, bringing fresh warnings from the European Union and U.S. human rights groups about the fairness of the vote.
“The government of Uganda should allow all citizens to exercise their fundamental right to assemble and all political parties to lawfully campaign,” Vukasin Petrovic, director of African programs for Washington-based Freedom House, said Tuesday.
Mr. Besigye and a third candidate, Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and Museveni ally who is running under the banner of the new Go-Forward party, are considered the leading rivals in an election that once again will pose a test for African democracy and the ability to challenge some of its longest-serving leaders.
At age 71, Mr. Museveni is among a cohort of long-serving leaders in Africa, including Equatorial Guinean President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has ruled for 36 years; Robert Mugabe, 91, who has dominated Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980; and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, 58, who has been in office since 2000 but effectively has been in control as army commander since 1994.
Others appear to be following in their footsteps. In July, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza won a third term despite critics who said he was ineligible to run for re-election under the constitution. His victory led to a brutal crackdown against rebels who dispute his rule.
“The fact that African leaders don’t want to leave power is bred within the history of disrespect of institutions, personal attributes attached to leadership, as well as the political and economic trappings that come with it,” said Peter Wafula Wekesa, a political scientist at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, Kenya. “The history of dynasties, kingdoms and other forms of leadership, especially in pre-colonial and colonial Africa, could have perpetuated this.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon brought up the issue last month at the African Union’s annual summit in Ethiopia, and the Obama administration last week issued its own call for a “peaceful, transparent and credible” election.
“Leaders should never use undemocratic constitutional changes and legal loopholes to cling to power,” Mr. Ban told African leaders. “We have all seen the tragic consequences when they do.”
In Uganda, the pattern seems to be continuing.
Mr. Besigye, who has appealed to voters to turn out if they want reforms to improve the economy and curb corruption that has been rife under Mr. Museveni, has warned that the incumbent is planning to rig the election and cling to power.
“President Yoweri Museveni is panicking since he is staring at defeat,” Mr. Besigye said at the rally last week in Kampala. “If you elect me, I will create employment for youths, pay workers good salary and also fight corruption.”
But Mr. Besigye might be speaking too soon. A recent Ipsos survey showed that Mr. Museveni would garner 53 percent of the vote to the challenger’s 28 percent. Mr. Mbabazi and a handful of minor candidates would win the rest.
But the Ipsos poll also found that only a bare majority — 54 percent — of Ugandan voters felt the election would be free and fair. Thirty percent doubted it would be fair. Another 16 percent said they didn’t know whether it would be fair or not.
There are plenty of grounds for skepticism.
Mr. Besigye and his allies are already complaining about election day restrictions, including one banning voters from bringing their mobile phones to polling stations that opposition groups say is intended to block any video or audio recordings as the votes are collected and counted.
Ugandan Police Chief Kale Kayihura recently told local media that he might not abide by election results that go against the incumbent. “We shall not hand over power to the opposition to destabilize the peace which we fought for,” he said.
Notwithstanding the opinion polls, Mr. Besigye has generated enormous excitement compared with the first two times he unsuccessfully ran for the presidency. His enthusiastic supporters believe a fifth term for Mr. Museveni would be outrageous.
“He is a leader who has opened our eyes to realize the corruption in the government,” Susan Magamba said at the Kampala rally. “We are telling the president to pack and go home. He has done nothing for this country apart from arming police officers to harass and intimidate Ugandans.”
Mr. Mbabazi is trying to capitalize on those sentiments, too. He lost his job as prime minister after he sought the presidential nomination from Mr. Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party.
“Museveni is a selfish leader because he has not mentored anyone to succeed him,” said the third-place candidate. “This is enough reason that he should be voted out of power. During his reign, he has built corruption networks in the government and introduced a dictatorial regime.”
But Mr. Museveni’s appeal to many Ugandans is still strong, even as he vows to use the military to “smash” those who threaten national security.
Mr. Museveni rose to power in a 1986 coup that brought stability to Uganda after dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote massacred 400,000 people over the course of 13 years. In 2005, the president allowed multiparty politics but also lifted presidential term limits, giving him the advantage of the incumbent in a fledgling democracy.
“Museveni is my savior,” said Dorris Namunyala, a 52-year-old street vendor and mother of eight, referring to the coup that overthrew Obote. “Other presidents have killed and raped very many people, including our relatives. He saved my family from rape and death. Without Museveni, I would have died with my family a long time ago. I will elect him until he dies or gets old.”
Meanwhile, the incumbent has repeatedly sullied opposition candidates, saying they have no capacity to lead the country.
“I want to tell you today that all the problems that Uganda has faced have been solved by me,” he told supporters at a campaign stop in Kampala recently. “Opposition candidates have been passengers in the bus. I led the war and brought peace. What have all the others done for you?”
Ironically, Mr. Museveni blames his rivals in the race for the country’s woes. “After messing up everything, they want me to go away. They’ll destroy the country,” said the president. “They want to mess up the army, which is now functional.”
The African Union, European Union and other international organizations are slated to monitor the polls. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers — likely Mr. Museveni and Mr. Besigye — will face each other in a runoff that must be held within 30 days.
But government spokesman Ofwono Opondo recently issued a warning to international monitors — without directly naming any foreign organizations — to avoid any interference in the country’s internal politics.
“The government takes strong exception to meddling and would like to caution those doing so to desist forthwith,” Mr. Opondo said in a statement. “In case there are matters of concern, they should be addressed through the appropriate diplomatic channels.”
Ugandan troops have been deployed around the capital in expectation of civil strife after the election, said Gen. Katumba Wamala, the country’s top military chief.
The mix of excitement among opposition supporters and the stern tone of the Museveni government have led some Ugandans to question whether they will head to the polls Thursday. It might be safer to stay home, especially if the president’s rivals accuse him of rigging the ballot, to avoid clashes between the two sides, they said.
That dispiriting attitude was one reason why so many African leaders stay in power, said Mr. Wekesa. “This is defeatist,” he said. “People should vote and consistently do so in order to build the culture of democracy and working institutions.”
But Joseph Oyango, 55, a hotel owner in the capital, said that is asking too much.
“I will not vote,” said Mr. Oyango. “There is no need to vote. Like it or not, Museveni will be our president forever. So there is no need to waste time voting. He has the army and police on his side, and he can do anything to remain in power.”
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