KAMPALA, Uganda — Uganda's long-serving president says he will not become the latest African leader to be unseated by popular unrest, and elections on Friday are expected to see Yoweri Museveni extend his 25-year grip on power.
Opposition threats of street protests and the looming start of oil production have raised the stakes of Friday's vote – just the second multiparty election to be held in Uganda in 30 years. Museveni, who is vague about his age and says he is 66 or 67, faces a record seven challengers.
Museveni, a U.S. ally, predicts a "big win," and most analysts agree he is likely to claim a fourth term. Museveni faces his stiffest competition from former ally and personal physician Kizza Besigye.
Besigye, the candidate for the Inter-Party Cooperation coalition, lost to Museveni in 2001 and 2006 and failed to get the results overturned in court despite proof of widespread intimidation.
Besigye, 54, has already called this vote cycle "fundamentally flawed," pointing to the incumbent's control of the electoral commission and the failure to give new voters identity cards as proof that Museveni will rig the vote.
Besigye says he will release his own tally of results and has ruled out launching a court challenge. Instead he has threatened street protests and insists that 25 years after Museveni seized power as the head of a guerrilla army Uganda is ready for an Egypt-style revolt.
"As long as people are oppressed for a long time, as long as they become hopeless in all processes ... then a time comes when their anger explodes," Besigye said.
Museveni has dismissed claims of vote-rigging, and says the recent end of a brutal counterinsurgency in northern Uganda has bolstered his popularity. He says he will jail anyone who tries to stir unrest.
"There will be no Egyptian-like revolution here," Museveni told a news conference Wednesday. "There is nobody who can use extraconstitutional means to take power here."
About 14 million people are registered to vote for the presidential and parliamentary races. Tens of thousands of supporters of the two leading candidates packed rallies in Kampala on Wednesday, the last day of campaigning.
Security has been heightened around Kampala and at the nation's nearly 24,000 polling stations.
Beyond potential election violence, police and foreign embassies warned of possible terrorist attacks. Last July twin suicide bombings in Kampala claimed by the Somali militant group al-Shabab killed at least 76 people.
Police have enlisted an extra 9,000 special constables and will deploy all 51,000 of their officers Friday, said Asan Kasingye, Uganda's assistant inspector general of police.
Opposition and civil society groups have accused state security forces of training thousands of young men to help rig the vote, but Kasingye denied that the 170,000 so-called "crime preventers" recruited by the police were loyalists of the National Resistance Movement.
While previous election campaigns were marred by violence against opposition candidates, these polls have been mostly free of intimidation.
This time, analysts say, Museveni has allowed the opposition to campaign more or less freely, potentially robbing them of a large sympathy-vote some received in the past. Observers say Museveni has also used government funds on his campaign and to bribe voters. Museveni denies the allegations.
"If we are having less physical and psychological intimidation at this election, then the manipulation of the vote using money has risen to the highest level ever seen," said John Mary Odoy, director of the Democracy Monitoring Group.
Finance Minister Syda Bbumba said no government funds have been used for the campaign. "I can account for every shilling," he said.
Western diplomats quietly say that Egypt-style unrest is unlikely, but that the possible diversion of government funds toward Museveni's campaign could have consequences for the economy.
Since the last time Uganda went to the polls, the country has struck oil, with estimated reserves rising last year to over 2.5 billion barrels. Uganda hopes to start production in the next few years, a move that analysts say could triple export earnings.
"The discovery of oil makes it very, very attractive for Museveni to stay in power," said Dickens Kamugisha, executive director of Kampala-based African Institute for Energy Governance. "It is a big factor in these elections. For the government it's do or die."