, KAMPALA, Feb 18 – Ugandans started voting Friday in polls widely predicted to return long-time leader Yoweri Museveni to power, with a fragmented opposition crying foul even before the ballot.
A new term at the helm of the east African country would extend the former rebel leader\’s rule to 30 years and his opponents have warned that Uganda was ripe for the kind of uprising currently sweeping the Arab world.
Voting kicked off officially at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) but only a handful of voters turned out early in the capital Kampala as polling equipment was still being set up.
There are some 14 million voters in Uganda.
"I came early to vote and then I have to keep witnessing the process. We fear rigging," said Badru Busulwa, the first to cast his ballot at a small open-air polling station in Kampala.
Museveni\’s main challenger Kizza Besigye claims only rigging by the regime could deprive him of victory and has pledged to release his own set of results within 24 hours of the end of polling.
"We are going to have someone remain here for the whole day. Kampala is for Besigye, even Museveni knows that," Kanaabi Quraish, an agent for Besigye\’s Forum for Democratic Change, said at the same polling station.
Museveni, 66, has been defiant, predicting a landslide and promising to crack down on protests.
"There will be no Egypt-like revolution here … Egypt is a different story. Tunisia is a different story," he told reporters on Wednesday.
"It will be a big win," said Museveni, who has been criticised at home and abroad over human rights but has steered Uganda to an average growth rate of five percent since 2004 and proved a key security ally of the West.
Besigye, the most prominent of Museveni\’s seven challengers, has already accused the regime and the electoral commission of planning widespread rigging to ensure Museveni\’s re-election.
In his closing rally, the opposition leader made a thinly-veiled call for mass protests if official results did not go his way, raising the spectre of yet another post-election crisis on the continent.
"If the electoral commission releases results that we know to be fraudulent, at that stage we shall recommend the Ugandan people deal with the matter directly," he said earlier this week.
Museveni\’s regime has deployed thousands of security forces across the country and the electoral commission has warned against any other body releasing results.
"The power to declare results of the presidential elections is vested with the national electoral commission," Badru Kiggundu, the head of the polling panel, warned.
Ugandans, who are electing their members of parliament and their president in Friday\’s contest, have never known a democratic power change.
Many commentators believe the election could be the closest since Museveni, a former guerrilla leader, grabbed power as head of the National Resistance Army in 1986.
Museveni drew tens of thousands of supporters in his rallies however, and has campaigned on his success in ridding the country of the Lord\’s Resistance Army\’s brutal rebellion and the prospect of oil windfall in his next term.
"By the end of these five years Uganda will be a middle-income country. I will not allow Besigye and others to mess up that plan," said Museveni before heading into the capital for a final campaign meeting.
Observers say the opposition\’s best hope is to deprive Museveni of more than 50 percent of the vote, and then unite against the incumbent in a second round.
If he completes a new term, Museveni will join a select club of African leaders who have ruled for more than 30 years such as Libya\’s Moamer Kadhafi and Zimbabwe\’s Robert Mugabe.