Multi-Party Election Tests Uganda's System

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Tensions are at a boiling point ahead of the nation's first multi-party elections in 20 years. Many Ugandans expect the results to be challenged in court regardless of who wins. Such a challenge, analysts say, would be the ultimate test of the independence of the country's judiciary.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Tomorrow voters in Uganda will take part in that country's first multi-party elections in 25 years. President Yoweri Museveni is hoping to stay in power, where he's been for two decades.

The head of the political opposition says the country desperately needs a change of leadership. Security forces have clashed with opposition supporters over the last week. They used tear gas to break up the final opposition rally of the campaign.

As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports, police and military forces are being put on high alert for the election.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

The head of the armored brigade of the Ugandan Army, Colonel James Mujera (ph), today announced that the full resources of the Ugandan military will be available to crush any violence that occurs on or after Election Day.

Col. JAMES MUJERA (Ugandan Army): There's nothing that is going to be tolerated anywhere in any corner of this country, that (unintelligible) elements will kind of cause trouble and get away with it.

BEAUBIEN: Mujera said he has information that some people have been stockpiling sticks, machetes, and guns in preparation for political clashes. The police also say that they're calling up thousands of reservists to patrol on Election Day. Uganda has never had a peaceful transfer of power since it gained independence from Britain in 1962. And the message from the security forces ahead of tomorrow's election is that the government will put down any uprising or violent protests that might occur.

Many of the supporters of Kizza Besigye, the leading challenger to President Museveni, talked with revolutionary zeal about regime change.

Mr. JOAQUIN OMAR: We are supporting Besigye because we are getting tired of the (unintelligible).

BEAUBIEN: Joaquin Omar (ph) is wearing a suit that he's adorned with pictures of Besigye's smiling face.

Mr. OMAR: When I see Besigye, it is one man trying to use all his powers to rule the country. Trying to use the Army in all the government activities.

BEAUBIEN: Besigye returned from exile in October. He was arrested three weeks later and charged with treason, terrorism, firearms possession, and rape. When the original accusations looked weak, additional charges were added in military court, even though Besigye left the army years ago. Then when the court was about to release him on bail, armed soldiers from an elite anti-terrorism unit stormed into the court and disrupted the hearing. He eventually was let out on bail weeks later.

At his final campaign rally in the capitol on Monday, police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd before Besigye even took the podium. Human Rights Watch issued a report earlier this month stating that conditions for a free and fair election here have not been met. Ben Rollins, who compiled the report, said the treatment of Besigye is just one of the flaws in the electoral process. For many years, Museveni tried to avoid the divisions found in other African nations by banning political parties, and he operated instead what he called a movement system.

Mr. BEN ROLLINS (Human Rights Watch): The principle problem is the legal structure of the state. The movement act, and the movement system is a nationwide structure of offices with vehicles, with personnel, which was designed to regulate the politics during the no party era. All of that still continues to exist and it's been inherited by the NRM, the National Resistance Movement, ruling party.

BEAUBIEN: Which Rollins says tips the playing field heavily in favor of Museveni. He says he's most concerned now, however, that a disputed election could lead to clashes between Besigye supporters from the FDC and security forces.

ROLLINS: I think at the moment the main concern is the increase in violence which we've seen over the last week. The flare-ups, where the police and FDC supporters have confronted each other everyday now for the last five days. There was a shooting last week where three people were killed by a rogue security officer.

BEAUBIEN: Human Rights Watch is calling for all the parties to act with restraint and to resolve any disputes over the election in court.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Kampala.

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