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Voter Turnout Low in Ugandan Referendum

Voter turnout has been light so far in a Ugandan referendum on whether to reintroduce multi-party politics. The low turnout is widely seen as a sign of voter apathy and general perception that the referendum is part of a larger strategy by Uganda's long-time president to prolong his stay in power.

Uganda's parliament voted earlier this month to scrap a constitutional amendment limiting its president to two five-year terms. The move paved the way for President Yoweri Museveni to run for a third term in next year's elections.

Now, Ugandans are being called to the polls to decide whether the country should allow multi-party politics, a system that was abolished nearly two decades ago.

The referendum to open the country's political process, as Uganda's Interior Minister Ruhakana Rugunda explains, is a positive sign that Ugandans have matured politically. Past leaders, such as Milton Obote and Idi Amin, exploited Uganda's ethnic and religious divisions to cling to power, he says.

"As a result it required a period, if you want, a cooling-off period where the old divisions based on religion and other sectarian considerations had not only to cool but as much as possible to be healed," said Mr. Rugunda.

During the so-called cooling-off period, all political parties were corralled into one all-inclusive party, known as The Movement.

But revisions in the constitution since then, according to some analysts, already allow for a multi-party system. To that extent, says Andrew Herrup, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, the referendum is unnecessary.

"Well that decision has already been made in parliament. That is not this referendum. Parliament voted in the past couple of weeks to remove term limits from the Ugandan constitution. So, whether or not the referendum passes, the president would be able to run again. The referendum is simply to allow multi-partyism," he said. "We would say that the constitution as it was drafted several years ago - having nothing to do with the votes that were taken in parliament over the past couple weeks - already authorizes the multi-party system, that the referendum isn't necessary. But the Ugandan parliament decided that they do need a referendum."

Critics of the referendum say it is part of a wider campaign by President Museveni to stay in office.

President Museveni was once hailed as a hero as he led his guerrilla army into Kampala, Uganda's capital, in 1986, ending Idi Amin's reign of terror. Now, according to Henry Mayega, commissioner for the Uganda People's Congress, one of Uganda's leading opposition groups, Mr. Museveni is in danger of becoming just another African dictator clinging to power.

"This man doesn't want to leave power. That's why he's now changing his position," he said. "He's really shifting the goal posts. Because in the past he has been arguing that parties are bad, but now he's saying that parties are good. Essentially, the reason why he's doing all these things - the referendum and so on and so forth - is that he still wants to stay in power for as long as possible."

President Museveni has had an impressive record of leadership. His push to privatize Uganda's economy earned him friends at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He mobilized the country against HIV and AIDS, setting the standard for public health campaigns in Africa. He's been growing the country's economy by roughly six percent a year, cutting poverty rates by almost 20 percent.

Still, many Ugandans, citing growing frustration with government corruption, say his time is up. But, according to Mr. Rugunda, the real issue is not whether President Museveni will run for a third term, but whether Ugandans should be allowed to choose the president they want, regardless of how long they've already served in office.