Boycott threat roils key Sudan elections

2010-04-03 10:05

SUDAN’S first multiparty elections in decades have been thrown into

disarray by allegations of government violations and opposition threats of a

boycott. The disputes wreck hopes of transforming a conflict-plagued nation and

could instead end up fuelling violence in Darfur and the south.

The election, set to begin April 11, had been billed as a chance to

bring democracy to Sudan and start to heal a history of turmoil. The country has

been ravaged by 50 years of civil war between north and south that has killed

2 million people. It has also experienced repeated military coups and years of

violence in the western Darfur region that the US has called the 21st century’s

first genocide and that brought international war crimes charges against the

president, Omar al-Bashir.

The US and other nations have invested heavily in the elections,

which are required under a 2005 peace deal between north and south mediated by

Washington .

But experts say the elections are likely to be deeply flawed and

won’t resolve the deep mistrust between the multiple sides – leaving the

divisions that could once again reignite into violence.

“I think it is a hugely lost opportunity for Sudan,” said John

Norris, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group, Enough

project, which focuses on Darfur and Sudan.

The 2005 peace agreement that ended civil war “was built around

transformation and democratic reform and those key elements have largely been

ignored,” he said.

Many in the south are already looking forward to a more crucial

vote next year: a referendum on independence for their oil-rich region. But many

fear the north will do anything to prevent the referendum from being held, which

could bring the two sides again to the brink of war.

The mainly Christian and animist south fought for decades against

rule by the mainly Muslim north. The separate conflict in the western region of

Darfur erupted in 2003, when ethnic African tribes rose up complaining of

discrimination by the Arab-led government in Khartoum.

The theory behind this month’s local, parliamentary and

presidential elections has been that they would loosen al-Bashir’s autocratic

control and decentralise power to address the factors that fuelled conflicts in

Africa’s largest nation ahead of the crucial referendum.

But in the lead-up to the vote there’s been little sign of that

happening. Arrangements for the southern referendum and crucial demarcation of

the north-south border around oil-rich areas are still not in place, angering


Darfur remains under a state of emergency, many of its refugee

community disenfranchised or intimidated by the state presence, while violence

continues, bringing the legitimacy of any voting there into question.

Opposition groups said US envoy Scott Gration suggested partial

elections in Darfur as a way to answer their complaints.

Opposition parties accuse al-Bashir’s government of seeking to keep

its monopoly on power despite the vote.

Candidates, backed by reports from international observers and

rights groups, complain al-Bashir’s party has used state resources for

campaigning, arrested and intimidated activists, denied them free access to the

media and has co-opted the independent national election commission.

Major opposition parties threatened to boycott the vote, saying

they wouldn’t participate in “incomplete” elections that would “falsify the

people’s will” and have demanded a delay to address the problems.

They met yesterday to decide whether the 11 opposition candidates

running against al-Bashir will pull out.

At least one major party, the Democratic Unionist Party, decided to

withdraw its presidential candidate but said it would still contest the local

and provincial elections.

Already, the sole southern candidate in the presidential race,

Yasser Arman, announced earlier this week he was quitting the race.

Al-Bashir, on a campaign rally last week, sent a clear message to

the southerners. He warned that the southern referendum would be in jeopardy if

the opposition, backed by the south, continued to call for a delay to the


Arman’s withdrawal may have been in response to that threat, to

give up the race in order to improve chances for the referendum taking


Southern Sudan’s President Silva Kiir, who is also head of the

southern party, was quoted on a pro-government news web site as saying his party

had pulled out its candidate in favour of al-Bashir’s party “to protect


“I think it was a very careful strategic hedge,” Norris said. “I

think they did what everyone else did in terms of deciding that this was just a

box-checking exercise that wouldn’t fundamentally change the power relationships

in Sudan.”

Al-Bashir’s party ridiculed the opposition’s boycott threats as a

desperate move from aging parties and denounced them as “agents of the


“These are outdated parties,” said Fathi Sheila, a spokesperson for

the ruling National Congress Party. “The parties failed to reach an agreement

and the people don’t buy these campaigning tactics.”

Al-Bashir is hoping for the vote to give his legitimacy a boost as

he holds out against the war crimes indictment against him from the

Netherlands-based International Criminal Court over atrocities in Darfur.

Few believe that any of the candidates could unseat al-Bashir given

the divisions among the multiple northern-based opposition parties and the

ruling party’s strong grip on security and intelligence agencies.

But lower level elections of provincial assemblies and, for the

first time, direct election of provincial governors are seen as a breakthrough

opportunity to more fairly distribute power on a local level and break the

patronage system by which the ruling party controlled the provinces and


However, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a

recent report that a faulty vote in Darfur would only increase Khartoum’s hold


“The consequences for Darfur are catastrophic,” the report said.

“Since the vote will impose illegitimate officials through rigged polls they

will be left with little or no hope or a peaceful change in the status quo and

many can be expected to look to rebel groups to fight and win back their lost

rights and lands.”

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