Voting began between 60 to 90 minutes late at six polling stations visited by Reuters after ballot papers did not arrive on time. Lines of voters were growing at many stations as midday approached and soldiers and police in riot gear patrolled the capital.
The East African country of nearly 46 million people was under an internet blackout after the communications regulator ordered telecoms operators to suspend services from Wednesday, according to the largest operator in Uganda, South African telecoms company MTN Group.
Reggae artist Bobi Wine, 38, is channelling the anger of many young Ugandans who say former guerrilla leader Museveni, now 76, is an out-of-touch dictator failing to tackle unemployment and surging public debt.
Museveni calls Wine an upstart backed by foreign governments and homosexuals and says his administration guarantees stability and progress including much-needed hydropower dams and roads.
As Wine’s car arrived at his polling station, flanked by police in black uniforms, bulletproof vests and helmets, his supporters danced and cheered.
“We have made every effort to observe and watch this election, and we will know the answer,” Wine said while voting. Some of those waiting to cast their ballots said they were scared of the security forces but determined to vote for Wine.
There has been more campaign violence than in previous turbulent elections, with scores killed when security forces cracked down on gatherings of opposition supporters. Opposition candidates, supporters and campaign staff have been repeatedly arrested.
The government says it is stopping illegal gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis. The opposition says the bans on rallies in some parts of Uganda are a smokescreen for repression.
“If you try to disturb peace, you will have yourself to blame. The security forces, following the law, are ready to deal with any troublemaker,” Museveni, dressed in a military camouflage jacket, warned this week in a television broadcast.
A 31-year-old motorcycle taxi driver waiting to vote, Muhamad Barugahare, said Museveni was the only one who could guarantee peace. “We don’t want to gamble with this young man,” he said, referring to Wine.
Joseph Kinobe, 40, a mason waiting to cast his ballot for Wine, said he was desperate for change.
“I’m tired of Museveni because he has no new ideas.”
Though Wine has the momentum of energized and aggrieved supporters behind him, Museveni remains the frontrunner to win with the well-equipped army and police behind him, analysts say.
Military police said they had deployed officers to rooftops of buildings across Kampala, and the normally bustling streets were quiet.
“Every bit of the security apparatus will be on the streets,” a senior European Union diplomat said. “Theoretically that brings calm, but I think we know that just brings flashpoints.”
There are 17.7 million registered voters. Polls close at 5 pm It was not clear if polling hours would be extended due to the early delays.
The first results are expected by Saturday evening.
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has urged supporters to watch the count at polling stations and take photographs of result sheets and upload them to an application called U Vote. The internet blackout makes that impossible.
On Tuesday, Uganda banned all social media platforms and messaging apps. Museveni apologized but said Uganda had no choice after Facebook took down some accounts that backed his party.
Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by David Clarke and Philippa Fletcher
FILE PHOTO: Elections billboards for Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, and opposition leader and presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, also known as Bobi Wine, are seen on a street in Kampala, Uganda January 12, 2021. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo