Review of Elections in a Hybrid Regime: Revisiting the 2011 Ugandan Polls by Sandrine Perrot, Sabiti Makara, Jérôme Lafargue and Marie-Aude Fouéré (eds.) (Fountain Publishers, 2014).
The 2011 Ugandan election seemed like the same old story. But, as this volume of academic essays reveals, there were subtle and important shifts in the tactics of both government and opposition.
Like a classic movie serial, the plot of a Ugandan election is reassuringly simple. Yoweri Museveni wins. Kizza Besigye loses. Besigye cries foul. Museveni stays in power. Tune in again for another exciting installment of Ugandan democracy: same time, same place, in five years.
In the broadest terms, that has been the pattern for the last four elections, from 2001 until the most recent contest in February this year. It makes reading Elections in a Hybrid Regime, a collection of essays by Ugandan and international academics, a strangely disorienting experience. The stories told in this volume, from the monetisation of campaigns to the overriding institutional dominance of Museveni’s National Resistance Movement (NRM), were written about the 2011 election – but they could easily be describing the events of the last few months. The publishers don’t need to make a 2016 edition: they just need to order a re-print.
But delve deeper and subtleties appear. The 2011 election – part III, in the Museveni v Besigye quartet – marked an important departure from previous polls. The tactics of both men evolved, establishing a new template which they have largely carried over to today. Beneath the familiar headlines, the struggle for power in Uganda was entering a new phase. This book, drawing on perspectives from political science, geography and anthropology, offers an insightful analysis of that process.
In pure numerical terms, 2011 was a setback for the opposition. Besigye officially won 26% of the vote, his worst-ever performance and a drop of 11 percentage points from 2006. Museveni made big gains, finishing on 68%. The biggest shift was in the north, where stability had improved as the war with the Lord’s Resistance Army wound down; previously an opposition stronghold, voters there returned to the regime in great numbers. Museveni gained an average of 42 percentage points in each district of the northern/West Nile region.
The 2011 election was qualitatively different too. There were pockets of violence, and clear cases of vote-rigging. But the authors argue that, compared to previous polls, there was a ‘decreasing level of election-related violence and fewer instances of electoral malpractice’. The NRM also used a re-vamped communications strategy, enlisting popular musicians and text messaging to appeal to a younger generation: Museveni himself became a hip-hop sensation with his campaign song, ‘You Want Another Rap’. Extravagant rallies, often using diverted state funds (and therefore aid money), contributed to the ‘unprecedented level of monetisation of the campaign’.
The fragmented opposition parties could not hope to compete. They were fighting only their second election since the re-introduction of multipartyism in 2005. They lacked nationwide structures, and could not agree on common candidates for parliamentary elections: even the most popular opposition party, Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC), had no candidate in 50 of the 238 constituencies. In most of the country, opposition parties had no presence outside the few months of campaigning. The NRM, by contrast, was effectively fused with the state at local level: village council elections were last held in 2001, and were won by NRM candidates – other parties were not allowed to take part.
So why did Museveni win? In an introductory overview, the editors of Elections in a Hybrid Regime seek a middle course between two competing narratives. They are unconvinced by the journalistic trope, echoing opposition complaints, that sees bribery and intimidation as the principal factor. But they are equally sceptical of claims made by other researchers, using Afrobarometer data, who stress the failings of an ‘uninspiring opposition’.
Neither media anecdote or polling statistics are sufficient, the authors argue. Based on extensive qualitative research, they draw a distinction between ‘electoral’ and ‘political’ support. Many Ugandans voted willingly for Museveni, but that ‘does not necessarily imply ideological support for NRM policies and modes of governance, or recognition of the regime’s legitimacy’. Instead, voters tried to second-guess the result. Believing, rightly, that the incumbent regime would remain in power, they ‘chose the winner’s side’ – fearing that districts which voted against Museveni would be economically and politically marginalised, for example by being cut off from development projects.
In 2011, therefore, the regime was able to dial down the overt intimidation, relying instead on the tacit understandings that had been built up over 25 years in power. It effectively mobilized its supporters – it boasted of 8.6 million members, in an electorate of 13 million – while many opposition voters simply stayed at home: turnout fell ten percentage points, to 59%, with the lowest figures reported in opposition areas.
If Museveni changed his tactics, so too did Besigye. In 2001 and 2006, he had tried, unsuccessfully, to challenge the result in the Supreme Court. In April 2011, fed up with Uganda’s judiciary, he took the battle to the streets. Besigye threw his weight behind a group of opposition and civil society activists, calling themselves ‘Action for Change’, who organized demonstrations against the soaring cost of living (caused partly by rising oil prices but also, it was believed, by excessive pre-election spending).
Ostensibly economic, but obviously political, these ‘Walk-to-Work’ protests echoed the Arab Spring uprisings that were then dominating the news. The regime responded with brutal repression: at least nine people were killed, and hundreds arrested, while Besigye himself was hospitalized after being pepper-sprayed. Despite the failure of the protests, they marked a new departure for Besigye. Direct action and ‘defiance’, rather than formal processes, became his method of choice.
Overall, Elections in a Hybrid Regime is a superb volume, eschewing simple explanations. The most interesting chapters view the election from different regional standpoints. Anna Baral’s study of the Buganda kingdom, for example, reveals the resurgent politicisation of Ganda identity, while teasing apart the tensions in the Baganda electorate which prevent it from uniting behind an ethnic candidate. Paul Omach traces post-conflict contradictions in the north, and the disenchantment of Acholi voters who had previously backed Besigye. Sandrine Perrot situates the electoral contest in Teso within a longer-term context of NRM dominance.
These regional stories enrich the larger narrative of change amid continuity. Museveni’s 2011 election victory was built on the same foundations as his earlier triumphs, but using different techniques: a more subtle application of violence, a more populist mobilization of support, and the implied threat of marginalisation for the losers. That, largely, is the model he has used again in 2016. Museveni sometimes refers to himself as ‘the leopard’, and it seems he has learnt the lessons of Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s novel of the same name: changing, so that things can stay the same.