Democracy in Sudan: Just an eyewash

Confusion and consternation reigns as Sudanese voters prepare to go to the polls between April 11-13 to elect a new president, 450 members of the national assembly, 25 provincial governors and representatives to state parliaments.

Voters in the semi-autonomous southern region will also choose a president and members of its 171-member assembly. Some 15.7 million people, 82 per cent of those eligible, have registered to vote.

The crisis began last week when chief opposition candidate for the national presidency Yasser Arman bowed out of the race, alleging fraud by Khartoum and arguing that insecurity in the Darfur region made a fair contest impossible. The withdrawal by Arman, candidate of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), precipitated a flurry of boycotts at different levels from other opposition groupings. They say that President Omar al-Bashir aims to fix the elections, the first democratic contest in 24 years, in order to stay in power.

The US, the outside party that has pushed hardest for elections, is apparently prepared to consider a brief postponement of polling if boycotting parties agree to take part.
Without them, the elections will hardly amount to a credible democratic consultation. The European Union and African Union are likely to go along. They are counting on ‘democracy’ as expressed through the ballot to resolve and heal the deep and abiding religious and ethnic rifts which have produced unending warfare in Sudan, a strategic bridge between Muslim Arab and Christian/animist Africa.

Referendum

These elections were meant to constitute the last but one stage of the process of peacemaking and reconciliation launched in 2005 between the mainly Muslim north and the largely Christian/animist south, which in 1983 rose in rebellion against Khartoum. The deal reached five years ago gave Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and the SPLM equal shares in power and mandated as the final stage a referendum, set for next January, to allow southerners decide whether their region should remain in Sudan or become an independent state.

On Tuesday the SPLM also decided to boycott polls in the north, jeopardising the 2005 power-sharing accord. Bashir blamed western organisations, including the International Crisis Group and the US-based Carter Centre, for the boycotts. When they argued that the elections should be delayed, he threatened to expel foreign observers or to cut off their fingers for meddling in Sudan’s domestic affairs. He also said there could be no referendum if the elections do not take place as specified in the agreement.

During the five year period of adjustment, the government was meant to take specific steps to prepare for these elections and the subsequent referendum. But this did not happen.  Bashir was meant to loosen his hold on power and decentralise the administration but instead tightened his grip and maintained the old order. The north-south border was not delineated. Darfur remains under martial law. Half of its citizens — the 2.7 million displaced — are unable to vote because they refused to take part in a census.  They feared that once they registered in the localities they are presently living, they could not return to their home villages. The borders of constituencies have been redrawn to favour NCP candidates. Opposition parties claim Bashir is using state machinery to influence and intimidate voters and candidates alike.
A glaring example of how officialdom tried to limit the contest was the initial refusal of the election commission to agree to the presidential candidacy of Dr Fatma Abdelmahmood, the first woman to put herself forward for this post.

Bashir is determined to win re-election by a strong majority, including a convincing number of votes from southerners, in order to boost his credibility and standing as national leader.  Once returned to office with a strong mandate, he is less likely to come under external pressure to appear before the International Criminal Court which has issued a warrant for his arrest and trial on charges of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the Darfur conflict.

Bashir has pledged to honour the choice of southerners who may well choose the secession option if and when the referendum is held. But, if the 2005 accord unravels and the north-south power-sharing arrangements break down, the division of the country could be met with violent opposition by Muslim tribal groups which have been battling Christian militias in Darfur and elsewhere. Fresh fighting and waves of refugees could spill across the porous borders of southern Sudan and infect the country’s already troubled neighbours, Kenya and Uganda.

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