Ugandans began voting Thursday in presidential and parliamentary polls, with veteran leader Yoweri Museveni widely expected to extend his power into a fourth decade.
“Uganda Decides,” the New Vision newspaper headline read. “Your vote counts,” the Daily Monitor front-page said.
Voting was due to begin at 07:00 am (0400 GMT), but despite queues forming outside polling booths, many were delayed opening for over an hour waiting for ballot papers.
Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, were inaccessible on voting day although Internet-savvy Ugandans dodged the apparent shutdown using virtual private networks (VPNs).
Museveni faces a challenge from seven candidates, but is widely predicted to win a fifth term, with the 71-year-old former rebel fighter who seized power in 1986 entering his fourth decade in power.
Fred Musoke, 34, waiting to vote in the Nakulabye suburb of the capital Kampala, said he began queueing an hour before dawn, and two hours before the official start time.
“You have to be here on time because many people will be coming when the polling centre opens that means you will wait longer than one who came early like me,” Musoke said.
“I came ready — I packed tea and pancakes to wait until I vote.”
– Results expected Saturday –
In the Kololo district of the capital Kampala, around 50 people waited to vote, but election officials had not turned up, an hour after polling was meant to have begun.
Motorbike taxi driver Etima Karim, 35, said he wanted opposition leader candidate Kizza Besigye, to win.
“He has to change things like health, hospitals and roads,” Karim said, as he waited for the polling station to open, criticising the delay in starting to vote.
Over 15 million Ugandans are registered to vote, casting ballots in over 28,000 polling stations for both a president and members of parliament, with 290 seats being contested by candidates from 29 political parties.
Over 150,000 police, soldiers and other security forces have been deployed to ensure tight security, election officials have said.
Polls are due to close at 04:00 pm (1300 GMT).
– Opposition claim not free or fair –
Initial results are expected as early as Saturday afternoon with the leading candidate requiring more than 50 percent of votes cast to avoid a second round run-off.
“We expect a peaceful exercise. Security is on the ground and we have put out messages calling on voters to come in big numbers,” national electoral commission spokesman Jotham Taremwa told AFP.
Elections in 2006 and 2011 were marred by violent, and occasionally deadly, street protests and the liberal use of tear gas by heavy-handed police. However, apart from an outbreak of violent protests in which one person died on Monday, campaigning has been relatively peaceful.
“Whoever will try to bring violence, you will see what we shall do to him. Those who want violence should play somewhere else, not Uganda,” Museveni told thousands of supporters in his final rally on Tuesday.
Besigye, a three-time loser whose brief detention by police triggered Monday’s protests, said he is confident of a first-round win despite saying he believes the vote will not be free or fair.
Voter turnout has followed a downward trajectory in recent elections with nearly three-quarters of eligible voters casting a ballot in 1996, during the country’s first-ever competitive election, but only three-fifths bothering to turn out in 2011.
Museveni’s share of those votes has also declined but most 2016 polls give him more than the 50 percent needed to avoid a run-off. He won his last five-year term in 2011 with 68 percent.
The other main challenger, Amama Mbabazi, a former prime minister and ruling party stalwart, has already accused the NRM of planning to stuff ballot boxes, a claim government spokesman Ofwono Opondo dismissed as the “cry of a loser”, according to the Monitor.
Vote counting will begin on Thursday evening.