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Can Uganda opposition unseat a party that has been in power for decades?

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Ben Curtis/AP

(Read caption) A girl walks past campaign posters for long-time President Yoweri Museveni, as well as for local members of Parliament, on a street in Kampala, Uganda, Wednesday.

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With just a few hours before polls open, tensions remains high in Uganda, with reports of police clashing with opposition in the capital city’s streets, Reuters reported.

Thursday's election, will see the long-term incumbent president, Yoweri Museveni, the head of National Resistance Movement (NRM) pitted against two leading candidates – Kizza Besigye, the head of the opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) and former ally Amama Mbabazi who is running as an independent.

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This will mark the fourth time that Mr. Besigye has challenged Mr. Museveni, in what observers say will be the incumbent’s toughest challenge yet, given the size and enthusiasm of crowds at opposition rallies.

But despite the popular rallies, most political analysts predict that Museveni, once the darling of Western governments, will win, pointing to Museveni’s popularity advantage, especially in rural areas, where 80 percent of Ugandans live, and where the incumbent is considered a father figure. Opposition parties have generally struggled to sustain a consistent presence in these areas, according to the Guardian.

A recent poll conducted by Ipsos group put Museveni’s support at 53 percent, and found that just 28 percent of likely voters support Besigye. Some activists, however, say the race is tighter than the poll indicates.

“The true opinion poll is what Ugandans are saying on the ground,” Moses Byamugisha, an activist for Besigye’s Forum for Democratic Change, told Ugandan newspaper Daily Monitor. “We believe we have reached a majority of Ugandans. Dr. Besigye has been to 112 districts, and our findings are that people want change.”

The opposition remains hopeful that the enthusiasm for change after three decades of Museveni rule will be reflected in the voter turnout. Uganda has a history of low turnout, with just 59 percent turnout in 2011, 10 percentage points lower than in 2006. Analysts contend that Mr. Mbabazi, who was a member of NRM until recently, is a threat to Museveni. As the Guardian reported, the ruling NRM party has for the first time, “a challenger from within – the former prime minister and confidant of Museveni until a few months ago, Amama Mbabazi, who threatens to split the incumbent’s party votes and further shake the indomitable Museveni.”

Still, there is widespread concern that the election will not be fair, with Besigye warning that any discrepancies in the outcome will prompt street protests.

"He's not going to go peacefully," Besigye said in an interview with Reuters, repeating an assertion that he believed Museveni would rig the vote. "Our more likely path would be to revert to the people. It is their voices that are being stolen." 

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“I am not very sure whether even if the incumbent is beaten, the votes will be counted to reflect the wishes of the people," Dr. Christopher Kayumba, a senior lecturer at the University of Rwanda School of Journalism and Communication told Deutsche Welle. “Unless you have an independent electoral commission, you cannot have the opposition be announced as the winner.”

Observers are concerned that the rigging claims may spark violence similar to 2006 when several people died in clashes between security forces and opposition members, following Besigye’s claims that the election results were rigged. And in 2011, violence followed two months after the poll, when Besigye launched a protest called "walk to work" to highlight bad economic conditions and rising inflation, the Guardian reported.

Museveni came to power in 1986 after waging a five-year guerrilla war, ending a civil war that had rocked the country. He is widely credited with restoring peace and presiding over economic growth. He is also a key US ally on security matters, especially in Somalia, where Ugandan troops form part of an African Union force protecting the Somali government from Islamic extremists, according to The Washington Post.

His term was expected to end in 2006, but Ugandan lawmakers changed the Constitution the same year, allowing Mr. Museveni to be re-elected in 2006 and 2011.