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Tue Sep 27 12:29:37 SAST 2016

Delays and tear gas as Ugandans vote for president

Amy FALLON | 18 February, 2016 17:29
Uganda's incumbent President Yoweri Museveni speaks to the media soon after casting his vote at a polling station during the presidential elections in Kirihura in western Uganda.
Image by: JAMES AKENA / REUTERS

Ugandan police fired tear gas to disperse furious voters in the capital Kampala on Thursday as the election commission apologised for hours-long delays in delivering ballot papers in some areas.

Voting in Uganda's national elections was due to begin at 07:00 am (0400 GMT) but was stalled for several hours in some polling stations in parts of the city and the surrounding Wakiso district, where ballot boxes and papers did not arrive on time.

The capital traditionally shows strong support for the opposition.

"There has been a delay in delivery of polling materials in some parts of Wakiso district and Kampala capital city. The Electoral Commission regrets the delay," the commission said in a statement.

"The polling materials have now been delivered to all these places and polling has commenced in most of the places."

Some frustrated voters accused the authorities of deliberately stalling the vote.

"People are quite angry and everybody is believing that there is something wrong behind this because of the way they are delaying things," said Moses Omony, a motorbike taxi driver.

"We know this has been done intentionally," said Marius Nkata, a builder.

The election commission meanwhile appealed for patience, saying it "calls on candidates, their agents and supporters, to be calm and tolerant as always during the polling process."

Social media, including Facebook and Twitter, were largely inaccessible on voting day although Internet-savvy Ugandans dodged the apparent shutdown using virtual private networks.

Government regulator, the Uganda Communications Commission, said the attempted shutdown was for "security reasons" without giving details.

President Yoweri Museveni 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.

After casting his vote in the west of the country the 71-year old incumbent said he was going to have a rest. "I have not been sleeping," he said. "Tomorrow I will go for my cross-country walk to exercise and then go to my cows."

He added that anyone threatening election violence would be "put in the freezer" to cool down.

The strongest among Museveni's seven challengers is Kizza Besigye, 59, who is making his fourth run at the presidency and ended his campaign by claiming the election would be neither free nor fair.

Over 15 million Ugandans are registered to vote, casting ballots in more than 28,000 polling stations for both a president and members of parliament, with 290 seats being contested by candidates from 29 political parties.

More than 150,000 police, soldiers and other security forces have been deployed to ensure tight security, according to election officials.

The Electoral Commission said all those standing in line when polls were due to close at 4:00 pm (1300 GMT) would be permitted to vote and that polling centres where materials were delivered late in Kampala and Wakiso would stay open until 7:00 pm (1600 GMT).

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.

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 was relatively peaceful this time.

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.

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