Uganda Voting Plagued by Delays

Uganda Voting Plagued by Delays

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) -- Amid tardy delivery of voting materials, Ugandans tried to cast ballots Thursday in presidential elections. A top international election observer called the delays "worrying" while the main opposition party said they were deliberate, aimed at favoring President Yoweri Museveni.

Even at noon, five hours after voting was supposed to start, some polling stations in the capital, including a major one, still had not received any voting papers. People had formed long lines and ballot boxes had arrived mid-morning, but still there were no ballots, so no one could vote.

Museveni faces a strong challenge from Kizza Besigye, who has called Museveni a dictator and said he doubts that voting will be free or fair.

In Kampala's Ggabba neighborhood, people were waiting for seven hours for the poll to open when voting papers finally arrived. When they found out there were ballots only for voting for members of parliament, with no ballots for the vote for president, they overpowered the police, grabbed the boxes the ballots were in and threw them all over the field at the polling station.

"If the election is free and fair we will be the first people to respect it, even if we are not the winner," Besigye said Thursday at a polling station in his rural home of Rukungiri. "But where it is not a free and fair election then we must fight for free and fair elections because that is the essence of our citizenship."

In Kampala, the spokesman for Besigye's party, the Forum for Democratic Change, said the delays were a "deliberate attempt to frustrate" voters in urban areas where Besigye is believed to be very popular, especially Kampala and the neighboring district of Wakiso.

"Why is it that in areas where we enjoy massive support, like Kampala and Wakiso, that's where these things are happening? We can't have a credible election under this environment," said Ssemujju Nganda.

Many people complained of an apparent shutdown of social media sites like Twitter and Facebook when they couldn't open those sites on their computers and phones.

Godfrey Mutabazi, the head of the Uganda Communications Commission, said the network failure was likely due to an ongoing operation to contain a security threat.

"It's a security matter and I cannot answer on behalf of security," he told The Associated Press.

But Sarah Jackson of Amnesty International said in a statement: "The Ugandan government's decision to block access to social media on mobile phones on election day is a blatant violation of Ugandans' fundamental rights to freedom of expression and to seek and receive information."

"Without clearly defined security concerns, this closure is nothing but an exercise in censorship as Ugandans elect their leaders," said Jackson, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes regions.

More than 15 million people are registered to vote, for members of parliament as well as president. Many waited under the hot sun to vote at polling stations that at mid-day were still not functioning.

"These cases are worrying because every citizen of Uganda has the right to vote," said Eduard Kukan of Slovakia, chief of the European Union's election observer mission. "And if they are prevented by this kind of method then it would have to be criticized, because it would mean that they didn't manage organizing of the elections the right way."

Some ballot boxes had missing lids. Voting officials frantically made calls.

"We are late simply because the lids for ballot boxes are not here. The boxes and the lids should have arrived at the same time," said Moses Omo, an official who was presiding over voting at a Catholic church in the central Ugandan district of Wakiso.

Many of those waiting said they would not leave without voting.

"This is very disappointing but I am going to stay here under the sun until it is my turn to vote," said Fred Mubiru, a taxi driver. "Nothing will discourage me."

Although opinion polls had shown Museveni to be ahead of his opponents, analysts expect this election to be his toughest yet, citing the massive crowds Besigye attracted across the country.

Museveni, 71, remains popular in some parts of rural Uganda, where he is seen as a father figure and is beloved by those who remember his time as a guerrilla leader fighting a dictatorship.

He came to power in 1986 and pulled Uganda out of years of chaos. He is widely credited with restoring peace and presiding over economic growth, and is a key U.S. ally on security matters, especially in Somalia. But his critics worry that he may want to rule for life, and accuse him of using the security forces to intimidate the opposition.

Besigye, 59, is running for the fourth time against Museveni. He campaigned on a promise to run a more effective government, vowing to stem official corruption. He said he will continue "the struggle" in other ways if he loses, suggesting a protest movement similar to the one that followed the last election in 2011. That movement was violently put down by security forces.

(KA)