GULU, Uganda (Reuters) - Ugandans voted in an election on Friday expected to hand President Yoweri Museveni a fourth term in office but which has been marred by allegations of rampant bribery and fears the process could turn nasty.
Opposition front-runner Kizza Besigye, who has twice tried and failed to beat Museveni at the ballot box, wants street protests if the poll is deemed rigged, and plans to release his own tally of results alongside the official vote count.
He says east Africa’s third largest economy is ripe for an Egypt-style uprising amid mounting frustration Museveni has been at the country’s helm since 1986. Museveni has said he would clamp down on any protests.
European Union observers said voting had so far been peaceful, but were concerned some voters were being turned away from polling stations despite being registered and that they had seen a number of improperly sealed ballot boxes.
Many Ugandans complain of widespread corruption and a lack of investment in basic public services and infrastructure, but others respect Museveni for bringing stability to a country once plagued by brutal despots such as Idi Amin.
“I voted Museveni because he is the man, that’s what we call him ‘The Man’ because he brought peace. Besigye is too aggressive for me,” said mechanic Milton Asese, 46, as he emerged from a polling station in the capital Kampala.
The discovery of oil along the country’s western border has upped the stakes. The vote’s winner will be tasked with charting Uganda’s emergence as a top-50 oil producer and managing the resulting petrodollars and foreign investor interest.
In northern Uganda’s Gulu district, the epicenter of a now fizzled out two-decade rebellion and an opposition stronghold, voting was sluggish amid tight security.
Voters in the village of Wii-Aworanga said candidates from all parties had offered bribes of up to 100,000 shillings ($40) per village ahead of the election to secure votes.
“Bribes came from everybody ... but of course the (ruling National Resistance Movement) NRM are the government and they offered more,” said one voter who did not want to be named.
In the past two elections, the Supreme Court ruled there had been rigging and violence against the opposition, though not enough to alter the result. Political analysts said attempts to sway voters had been more subtle this time to avoid alarming foreign donors and investors eyeing the country’s oil.
“In 2006 the election was about a stick. In 2011 it’s all about the carrot,” said one diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Another diplomat said the ruling National Resistance Movement has spent a “phenomenal” amount of money and that the state coffers were clearly dug into to support Museveni.
The EU’s chief observer, Edward Scicluna, said that in three out of five polling stations visited by midday ballot boxes had not been sealed correctly and their lids could be lifted.
“My impression is that’s a lack of training, not systemic rigging,” said Scicluna, adding some voters were being told they had not registered despite thinking otherwise.
Analysts feel a public uprising is not likely to succeed in Uganda, where a population less educated and less Internet-savvy than that of Egypt is afraid of an army with a history of violently suppressing dissent.
In 2005, Museveni scrapped presidential term limits, sparking suspicions he wanted to stay in power for life.
“Ten years should have been enough for him. We want to be like Europeans, where leaders leave. African leaders stay too long and drag us down,” said Joachim Ssempijja, 26, a taxi driving voting in Entebbe.
Polls are expected to close at 1400 GMT. The country’s electoral commission says it will announce the results within 48 hours of the polls closing
Writing by Richard Lough; editing by Giles Elgood