The campaign in east Africa’s third largest economy was bitter, marked by widespread claims the ruling party has been paying voters to return Museveni for a fourth term.
Front-running opposition candidate, Kizza Besigye, has lost twice before to his former ally Museveni and said repeatedly in the days ahead of the election there could be Egyptian-style unrest if the election was unfair.
Many Ugandans complain of rampant 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 billions of barrels of recoverable oil reserves 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.
The previous two elections in 2001 and 2006 ended in dispute as Besigye, who was Museveni’s bush doctor during a five-year guerrilla war, appealed both times unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court to overturn the results.
This time, he is producing his own results tally and plans to call for protests if it does not match the official outcome, which may be announced late on Sunday. Some voters were already complaining of flaws soon after the polls opened.
“I registered myself during the verification process and my name was there, but now nothing,” said Apollo Turyatemba, a voter in the capital. “This is the fraud in process we’ve been talking about.”
Analysts, however, say 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.
The opposition alleges the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) has been using bribery to sway voters.
“The amount of money the NRM have spent on this election is phenomenal,” a diplomat, who declined to be named, told Reuters.
“And the fact that there is little distinction between party and state is worrying. It’s pretty clear state coffers are supporting Museveni.”
The government says the opposition is trying to undermine a vote it knows it will lose.
Kampala was calm ahead of polls opening but there was a visible increase in security, with armed police patrolling the streets in large numbers on foot.
67-year-old Museveni, in power since 1986, has largely avoided publicly challenging Besigye this time, though he has threatened to have him arrested should he spark trouble.
Museveni has been credited with bringing stability to a country that has never witnessed a democratic transfer of power since independence and with fostering economic growth, winning strong praise from the West.
But in recent years his popularity at home and abroad has waned. Rights groups lambast what they say is a growing authoritarianism and tolerance of corruption — a vice voters blame for poverty.
“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.
In 2005, Museveni scrapped presidential term limits, sparking suspicions he wanted to stay in power for life.
Polls open around the country at 0400 GMT. Some 14 million Ugandans will cast their choices at almost 24,000 polling stations. The country’s electoral commission says it will announce the results within 48 hours of the polls closing. Reuters