KAMPALA (Reuters) - Ugandans vote on Thursday in a presidential election pitting long-time leader Yoweri Museveni against an opposition galvanised by a popular singer despite a campaign marked by brutal crackdowns.
Reggae artist Bobi Wine, 38, is channelling the anger of many young Ugandans who say former guerrilla leader Museveni, now 76, is an out-of-touch dictator failing to tackle rampant unemployment and surging public debt.
Museveni calls Wine an upstart who is backed by foreign governments and homosexuals and says his administration guarantees political stability and economic progress including much-needed hydropower dams and roads.
Campaign violence has surpassed previous turbulent elections, with scores killed when security forces cracked down on gatherings of opposition supporters. Opposition candidates, supporters and campaign staff have been repeatedly arrested.
The government says it is stopping illegal gatherings during the COVID-19 crisis. The opposition says the bans on rallies in some parts of Uganda are a smokescreen for repression.
"If you try to disturb peace, you will have yourself to blame. The security forces, following the law, are ready to deal with any troublemaker," Museveni warned this week, dressed in a military camouflage jacket as he spoke on live TV.
Though Wine has the momentum of energized and aggrieved supporters behind him, Museveni remains the frontrunner to win with the well-equipped army and police behind him, analysts say.
There are 17.7 million registered voters in Uganda and polls will be open from 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) until 5 p.m. on Thursday. The first results are expected to come in by Saturday evening.
"Every bit of the security apparatus will be on the streets. Theoretically that brings calm, but I think we know that just brings flashpoints," said a senior European Union diplomat.
Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, has urged supporters to stay at polling stations after voting to observe tallying, and to take photographs of the results sheets and upload them to an application, U Vote.
However, Ugandans reported problems accessing the internet on the eve of the election and internet monitor NetBlocks said the country was experiencing a nationwide blackout.
The internet problems came a day after Uganda banned all social media platforms and messaging apps until further notice.
Museveni apologised for the inconvenience but said Uganda had no choice after Facebook took down some accounts which backed his ruling party.
Birmingham University democracy professor Nic Cheeseman said many who want to heed Wine's call for change were too afraid.
"Previous surveys show that the majority of voters do not believe in change at the ballot box because Museveni is not prepared to leave," he said.
Aggrey Musasizi, 31, a motorbike taxi driver, told Reuters from his village in Uganda's west that he had left the capital Kampala for fear of violence, but he would still vote for Wine.
"It is high time we witnessed change in Uganda. We can't continue in the situation where some of us have seen only one president all our lives."
(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by David Clarke)