Opinions polls: Looking beyond the horse race

The original version of this article has been changed to correct potential confusion over the use of the word ‘majority’ in two cases.

By Peter G. Mwesige

The results of the July opinion poll by Research World International, NTV Uganda and the Uganda Governance Monitoring Platform released last week provide plenty of food for thought for the keen political observer.

Predictably, journalists and commentators have paid most attention to the horse race. (According to the results, if the elections had been held in July, President Yoweri Museveni would have beaten his opponents comfortably. Fifty-five per cent of the respondents said they would vote him compared to 17% for FDC’s Kizza Besigye and 13% for former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi. Mr Museveni’s numbers didn’t change significantly in a two-way match-up, with 57% of the respondents giving him the nod over Besigye’s 28%, and 54% choosing him over Mbabazi’s 22%).

Although the pollster did a good job explaining that like all opinion polls, the results provide a snapshot of opinion at a particular point in time, many commentators approach the results like nothing will change between July and February 2016. Of course, a lot can change.

For instance, the findings suggest that — predictably — Mr Museveni, who has been president for nearly 30 years and has been crisscrossing the country in the last few months, leads the pack in name recognition, followed by Dr Besigye and Mr Mbabazi. But Mr Mbabazi’s name recognition should grow when he hits the campaign trail. Also, if his message resonates with potential voters, there is a chance that his overall numbers will grow.

My point here is that such background and contextual information is very important when covering opinion polls.

Beyond the horse race, there are many other interesting findings in the latest poll that the media have barely touched.

  • The findings of this poll are consistent with several others before that have shown that Ugandans don’t rate issues of democracy, political reform, political rights, civil liberties, human rights, rule of law and the like highly when asked about the most important problems facing the country. Bread and butter issues (such as poverty and unemployment) and service delivery (roads, education, medicines, health facilities) are consistently cited as the most important issues facing the country. Of course, corruption and embezzlement of government funds is also up there. But it is possible many Ugandans don’t connect the dots between democracy, human rights, rule of law on the one hand and the quality of services the government delivers on the other.


  • Most respondents do not think the government is doing enough to fight corruption, but some of them somehow distance President Museveni from this, with 15% crediting him for “putting in the most effort toward fighting corruption”. The opposition’s task is cut out.


  • Although a majority said they would vote for Mr Museveni if elections were held today:
  1. Most respondents (30%) wanted him to retire before the 2016 elections (18% said he should retire after the 2016 elections, 19% said he should retire when he decides, while 10% said he should rule for life).
  2. A majority (61%) don’t believe he can hand over power if he is defeated in an election.
  3. Most Ugandans (45%) don’t believe we can change presidents peacefully through an election (Only 39% said we Uganda can have a peaceful transition).

These findings appear to suggest many voters are resigned to the idea that Uganda is stuck with Mr Museveni—at least for now.

  • Ugandans appear split on whether the 2016 elections will be free and fair. Only 33% of respondents said the elections will be free and fair, while 32% said they will not. A notable 23% said they are not sure.


  • There are high levels of mistrust in the impartiality of official institutions during elections, with the Uganda Police and the Electoral Commission attracting the highest levels of doubt. Asked if they trusted selected institutions to act impartially during elections, 49% and 45% said no in reference to the Uganda Police and Electoral Commission respectively. The doubters were 43% on intelligence services, 43% on the judiciary, 42% on the army, and 39% on Bank of Uganda. The other interesting detail is that save for the army, where 42% said they trusted it to be impartial, for all other institutions there were fewer respondents showing trust than those harbouring mistrust.

These and several other findings provide some interesting peak into the minds of Ugandans as the country prepares for the 2016 elections.

Journalists and commentators should try and make sense of all these findings, instead of restricting themselves to the horse race between the presidential candidates and their political parties. In any case, reporting the horse race also requires context.

Peter G. Mwesige

Dr Mwesige is co-founder and executive director of the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) Email: mwesige@acme-ug.org; Twitter: @pmwesige

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *