Tomorrow Ugandans vote in the fifth election of the National Resistance Movement/Yoweri Museveni era.
There will really be no surprises. Only two candidates can win – Opposition FDC’s Kizza Besigye or President Yoweri Museveni.
Besigye has triumphed before, but never declared winner. Museveni has been victorious in all the last four elections, although he probably only won only one of them.
Either defeat or loss, in real terms, will be no stranger to the two leading contenders.
But elections are also a barometer about how a country has changed, for better or worse. Thus, for example, while the election of US President Barack Obama was not a result of changed race relations in America, it revealed a lot about the demographic shifts and the shape of the new “democratic alliance”, as someone called it.
So what do we read in today’s political Uganda?
Since the bitter election of 2001, the political centre in Uganda has shrunk as the country became sharply polarised between the forces allied to Museveni on one end, and Besigye on the other.
The Museveni camp demanded even more loyalty and made life harder for rivals, and there was so much heat on the Besigye side that only the bold, brave, or very angry, remained standing with him.
The government also squeezed civil society and the media more: many were either buried, surrendered, or climbed the fence and shut up.
In short, the political middle all but dried out. It’s an oversimplification, but it pretty much sums things up.
By the time of the 2006 elections when Besigye was being arrested all over the place, the terms of his return from exile and security had to be negotiated with the South African leadership.
Then there were attempts to manage the sharp differences between Museveni and Besigye by brokering direct talks into 2011 and after, masterminded by some Ugandan players, but ultimately involving a former Tanzanian president. Nothing came of that in the end.
There were complex reasons for that, but clearly there was no thoroughbred Ugandan group that was able to broker talks between the political antagonists, because that middle road had fallen away.
This year that changed – a little. That was expressed through the first presidential debates in Uganda ever. They were organised by the Elders Forum and the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU), and funded by the UNDP.
The Elders Forum and IRCU represented the first civil society coalition that had the credibility to negotiate a deal and bring the Museveni and the Opposition camps to the same platform on an equal footing probably since 1991. That year is significant because it is when Cardinal Emmanuel Kiwanuka Nsubuga died. He was a critical conduit for channelling backdoor political deals.
The rise of the Elders Forum and IRCU is important, because we are entering a strange period for Museveni/NRM.
With perhaps the exception of Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, Museveni went into this election without any of the NRM “historical” moderates and pragmatists. They either passed on (Eriya Kategaya), drifted apart or fallen out (Amanya Mushega). But Museveni also doesn’t have most of his consummate operators (with Amama Mbabazi being the ultimate).
It’s worth noting that for the first time, Museveni and NRM went into this election without a whiff of a potential successor, yet that is most definitely bound to be the big issue of the next five years.
It’s also a period, and those who listened carefully to the often hapless candidate Maureen Kyalya during the presidential debates would still have picked it up, when there will likely be a serious demand for the presidency to “cross the River Nile” and go east or north.
So beside the change of incumbent going into 2016, there will also be a second demand for a geographical rotation of the presidency.
The rise of the Elders Forum and the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) as a response to an urgent demand in the political market is, therefore, fortuitous. If they can hold, they will be a useful first stop for mediation in the rocky transition that lies ahead.
There was also another shift, evident in the donations by people who didn’t really have much to the Besigye campaign in the form of change, chicken, goats, puppies, and water and food to feed people at his rallies.
It would be to miss the broader factors behind this if it was seen as purely a phenomenon to do with Besigye, because there were also a few donations to the Museveni campaign.
There was a repudiation there of political bribery, and a symbolic reclamation of their democratic by the people. Why now? Because, again, we have a population of, especially, young people for whom electoral outcomes have become a critical livelihood issue.
And it’s because of this constituency that Museveni showed up for the second debate. We will explore these ideas next time.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian AFRICA (mgafrica.com).