KAMPALA Ugandans will vote in a presidential and parliamentary elections on Friday that President Yoweri Museveni is expected to win, despite a fierce challenge from third-time rival and former ally Kizza Besigye.
Apart from extending his rule to 30 years, the main prize for Museveni would be a chance to shepherd east Africa's third largest economy through a period of embryonic oil production, and the resulting economic and political dividends.
Besigye, the president's doctor in the bush when he was a rebel leader, now heads the four-party Inter-Party Cooperation coalition that has made deep inroads in rural areas that are the veteran president's traditional support base.
Besigye says he was cheated of victory in the last two elections and cites rulings by the Supreme Court, which said the 2001 and 2006 elections were marred by vote-rigging but that this did not affect the overall result.
The 54-year-old is the main opposition candidate in a crowded field, and the only one with a real chance of causing an upset. He has raised the stakes in the election battle in this coffee-growing country of 32 million people by saying that if the opposition loses, it will be because of rigging.
Besigye has also warned of Egyptian-inspired protests if the poll is unfair. He plans to release his own tally of results -- despite Museveni's threat to arrest him if he does.
The talk of violence has weakened Uganda's currency and Uganda's investment authority said business decisions were being delayed because of the poll.
By Ugandan standards, this has been a largely calm campaign, punctured by Besigye's warnings of violence.
"We're still broadly confident that, if there are violent incidents, they will be contained," a Western diplomat in Kampala, who did not want to be named, told Reuters.
Analysts say any attempt to overturn an unfair result through an upheaval similar to the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt that forced their leaders out would not succeed in Uganda because of low levels of education and sparse Internet access.
Ugandans' fear of their army -- dogged by suspicions it would make sure its founder, Museveni, remains president despite losing the vote -- could also put a dampener on any protests. The army has said it will respect the election result.
There is concern over post-poll chaos with accusations by both sides that their opponents are training militias, but analysts say these tactics could be a double-edged sword.
"The government doesn't want to have anything to do with violence. Maybe not out of a moral position but a pragmatic one because you can never really be sure where violence will end," political analyst Nicholas Ssengoba told Reuters.
In power since 1986, Museveni has steered Uganda's economy through a period of economic expansion and the discovery of oil has boosted foreign investor interest.
But the former favorite of Western governments is accused by his rivals and the West of autocratic tendencies and of pervasive corruption -- blamed for everything from crumbling roads to the failure to lift the majority out of poverty.
Several diplomats told Reuters that, although the opposition has been gaining on Museveni, even a rigged win could reflect the will of the people.
The diplomats argue that the man nicknamed "M7" is still popular with some Ugandans for bringing stability to a country with a violent past, where leaders were ousted by the gun rather than the ballot box.
When Uganda extended presidential term limits, Museveni told critics it was important to keep historical leaders in power to provide the expertise and experience needed for development.
"The economy has had over 20 years of uninterrupted economic growth -- this is a huge achievement equaled by few countries. But Museveni is tainting an impressive economic record by refusing to stand aside," said Joseph Lake, an analyst at the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit.
(Editing by James Macharia)