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Voters in Uganda weigh whether to keep longtime incumbent

KAMPALA, Uganda—In a democracy, isn't 20 years as president long enough?

Voters in this small East African nation weighed that question Thursday in a presidential election watched closely across the region, where fledgling democracies are trying to shake the memory of brutal dictators.

Incumbent Yoweri Museveni, 62, the rebel-turned-statesman who has led Uganda since 1986, was locked in his toughest political challenge ever with Kizza Besigye, his former ally and personal physician. Results were trickling in Thursday night, but pre-election polls favored Museveni, a once promising leader who critics say is drifting toward despotism.

Election officials said turnout had been unusually high among Uganda's 10.5 million registered voters, while Besigye's supporters said there had been widespread irregularities at polling stations, including names missing from voter rolls. Government officials dismissed these claims.

Final results were expected by Saturday. If none of the five presidential candidates receives a majority, there will be a runoff.

The fraud allegations were a predictable end to a bitter and occasionally violent campaign that Besigye said was tilted in Museveni's favor. In recent days, security forces disrupted Besigye rallies with tear gas and, in one case, fired shots into a crowd, killing three.

Since November, Besigye ran much of his campaign from prison or a courtroom after being arrested on treason and rape charges that he said were politically motivated.

"We were never under any illusion that President Museveni wouldn't seek to do everything possible to cheat his way back to power," Besigye's wife, Winnie Byanyima, said Thursday night.

Museveni's opponents say he has become increasingly autocratic, consolidating power in the hands of security forces and a few advisers and that he hasn't done enough to end a 20-year civil war in northern Uganda that has displaced nearly 2 million people.

Impatience has grown since Museveni's last re-election bid, in 2001, when his 41-point win over Besigye was marred by serious fraud and campaign violence. He said at the time that was his last campaign, but last year he pushed through a constitutional amendment that lifted term limits so he could run this year.

Some voters worried that the broken promise signaled a leader who would do anything to keep office.

"We in Africa are not good at giving up power," said Besigye supporter Moussa Abdullah, 34, a taxi driver who voted in the declining river town of Jinja, a key battleground an hour's drive east of the capital, Kampala.

But others said they wanted to keep Museveni in office because he had turned Uganda from a basket case of ethnic conflict into a success story, marked by stability, economic growth and a drop in the AIDS rate. He tamed Uganda's political and ethnic discord by instituting a highly disciplined, one-party political system known as the Movement.

"He took a hopeless situation and turned it around," said pastor Stephen Ibale, 48, who voted in Jinja. "We shouldn't change leaders for the sake of change."

For a country that hasn't had a peaceful transfer of political power since independence in 1962, retiring Museveni by the ballot box would represent a milestone. Analysts said none of the challenges facing Uganda—including a rapidly growing population, a worsening energy shortage and endemic poverty—is as important to the outcome as voters' feelings about Museveni himself.

"Very simply, this election came down to whether you thought Museveni should stay or go," said Sali Simba, a professor of political science at Kampala's Makerere University.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): UGANDA

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060220 UGANDA

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