Do campaign crowds really matter?

National Unity Platform party presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (left atop car)addresses a rally in Katakwi yesterday. PHOTO | ABUBAKER LUBOWA 

What you need to know:

  • The police, in blocking the presidential candidates from accessing some places and dispersing some rallies, invoke the mandate to protect the community from the danger posed by Covid-19. 
  • This view, however, has been challenged by a number of Opposition players, who cite the fact that ruling party members held big rallies during their primary elections and that blocking rallies for this campaign is a way of trying to lock out the Opposition. 

It is campaign time and the politics of crowds is back. The candidate that pulls the biggest crowds gains the initiative and enjoys the campaign period at least until election day. 

National Unity Platform (NUP) party candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, has so far pulled the biggest crowds despite the Electoral Commission and the authorities guiding that the maximum attendees of any public function at the moment should  not be more than 200 people. 

Mr Patrick Oboi Amuriat started out in his native Teso and also pulled sizeable crowds.

The eight other Opposition candidates have attracted much smaller crowds. President Museveni, on the other hand, has voiced fidelity to the guidelines in place to fight Covid-19, insisting on meeting only party leaders in the districts he has visited so far.  

In the previous four presidential campaigns, the fight over who pulled the biggest crowds was between President Museveni and Dr Kizza Besigye, who is not running in this election. 

Mr Kyagulanyi now appears poised to replace Dr Besigye as the candidate who commands the biggest crowds. 

Mr Kyagulanyi’s campaign activities are all relayed live by an online television channel, Ghetto TV. 

In Katakwi yesterday morning, for instance, Mr Kyagulanyi had hundreds of followers as his motorcade snaked through town. The presenter on Ghetto TV said: “The police wanted to block us from accessing town but Ugandans said no, we have to see our next president.” 

When he is not addressing rallies, Mr Kyagulanyi is posting images of his rallies, in many cases relatively bigger crowds. 

About his tour of Lango, Mr Kyagulanyi posted images and followed up with a caption: “This was Kamdini, Oyam and Apac. I don’t know if Lira can even fit on Facebook, but let me try.”

Mr Kyagulanyi later posted: “In Oyam, after a massive reception, the RPC of this region, one Nkore Paul, could not stomach it.He arrested my deputy president, Dr Lina Zedriga Waru, and several other comrades and detained them at Lolo Police Station. They are all detained in a small crowded cell. Moreover she is detained in the same cell with men.”

When Mr Kyagulanyi crossed over to Karamoja, this is what he posted: “For the past 30 minutes, we’ve been held at a roadblock by the military and police. Although we have a radio show scheduled for 7pm in Moroto Town, they are blocking us from accessing the town. Having spent the whole day beating up our people, they now fear that people will gather to wave at us!”

What has happened to Mr Kyagulanyi’s rallies has also happened to those of Mr Amuriat and Lt Gen Henry Tumukunde to a good degree. 

Gen Tumukunde, for instance, has been blocked from accessing some districts. 

The police, in blocking the presidential candidates from accessing some places and dispersing some rallies, invoke the mandate to protect the community from the danger posed by Covid-19. 

This view, however, has been challenged by a number of Opposition players, who cite the fact that ruling party members held big rallies during their primary elections and that blocking rallies for this campaign is a way of trying to lock out the Opposition. 

Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago says now that elections are here, rallies cannot be avoided. 

He says wherever elections have taken place during the days of the Covid-19 pandemic – whether Burundi, Malawi, Tanzania or Kenya and Ghana which are currently in a campaign period – rallies have taken place. The only way to avoid political rallies, Mr Lukwago argues, is to postpone the election.  

“Politics is about exhibition and display of support,” Mr Lukwago says, stressing that one can only get elected if they are in people’s faces. 

He accuses President Museveni of trying to benefit from incumbency and having had plenty of airtime during the Covid-19 lockdown when his opponents could not access the voters. To make matters worse, Mr Lukwago says, the campaign period for presidential candidates was shortened to two months instead of the previous three months, further curtailing the ability of Mr Museveni’s challengers to reach out to the voters.  

Do crowds matter?

And one question that keeps popping up with regards to crowds is whether the size of crowds one pulls matters as far as the final outcome is concerned.  

Kampala Central Division MP Muhammad Nsereko has used only the first week of campaigns and come up with a picture of how the candidates might perform. 

According to him, Mr Museveni has a strong stake on the number one spot, for which he will only be challenged by Mr Kyagulanyi, given the size of crowds and enthusiasm he has generated so far. 

FDC’s Amuriat, Mr Nsereko said, has pulled sufficiently big crowds to lay claim to the third position, and then the other candidates will follow.

In the lead up to the campaigns for the 2016 election, Dr Besigye was a man under siege, with many pro-change players calling for him to back former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi to challenge Mr Museveni. Many projections, including opinion polls, showed that Mr Museveni’s biggest challenger would be Mr Mbabazi. 

But this changed on November 3, 2015, the day Dr Besigye was nominated. It took him half a day to move from Namboole to Nakivubo stadium, a distance of about 10 kilometres, as he was swamped by enthusiastic supporters. 

It was certainly among the biggest political processions to be experienced in the country. And all of a sudden everyone was talking about Dr Besigye. 

But despite pulling massive crowds across the country, the Electoral Commission declared that he had lost to President Museveni, a result he still contests, just like those for previous elections. 

During the campaigns, accusations kept flying about, with Opposition politicians saying that the fact that Mr Museveni’s camp ferried people in yellow omnibuses to their candidate’s campaign venues meant that the incumbent did not have enough support.    

Ruling party spokespersons laughed off this reasoning, discounting crowd size as a measure of political support. 

One other commentator who holds this view is veteran journalist Andrew Mwenda. And he has picked up once again on the subject. Responding to Mr Kyagulanyi’s tweets showcasing big crowds, Mr Mwenda twitted another huge crowd and remarked: “This is the crowd @AmamaMbabazi got when he campaigned in Arua in 2015! So @HEBobiwine be careful when making projections and/or conclusions of your potential votes based on huge crowds! They can be quite misleading. What is decisive ultimately is infrastructure on the ground. 

To the Opposition supporters, especially those on the side of Mr Kyagulanyi, Mr Museveni is not calling rallies because he has no support. And the incumbent has been minded to respond to this claim, because perhaps size of crowds has a huge psychological effect on the voters and may determine outcomes.

Mr Museveni tweeted: “Those who are worried and wondering why the NRM is not conducting rallies like some other political parties, I want to assure you that if it was safe, nobody would have bigger rallies than us, but we care for your safety. Do not join the enemy groups endangering the people.” 

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