Opinion

Darfur's best hope: the ballot box

A regime-ousting election could help more than peacekeepers.

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This weekend's revelation that Sudan had appointed a notorious janjaweed militia leader to a senior government post was, as Human Rights Watch rightly called it, "a stunning affront to victims" of the violence in Darfur.

It was not, however, much of a surprise. After all, Sudan's government already includes a state minister for humanitarian affairs who is one of just two men currently under indictment by the International Criminal Court for crimes in Darfur.

No, President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) have long demonstrated their contempt for both Darfur and international opinion, to the enormous detriment of the new United Nations peacekeeping mission, which remains undermanned, undersupplied, and undermined. Last month, a coalition of prominent nongovernmental organizations accurately described it as being "set up to fail."

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The United States and its allies on Darfur have long responded to Khartoum's obstructions with public complaints and reaffirmations of their commitment to the mission. Though well-intentioned, this approach has played into the NCP's hands. While American attention has been narrowly focused on the struggling peacekeeping mission, the NCP has been undercutting a potentially dramatic challenge to its rule – and with it, the greatest opportunity for lasting peace in Darfur. With the swearing in this month of a new special envoy for Sudan, Rich Williamson, it is time that America revisits its approach to Sudan – and recognizes that the peacekeeping mission should not be its exclusive focus.

As Mr. Bashir's latest provocation suggests, the problem in Darfur is one that ultimately cannot be resolved by peacekeepers. That's because its roots don't lie in local grievances or ethnic divisions – though both have fueled the fighting – but in the halls of power in Khartoum. The peacekeeping mission is urgently needed to improve immediate security, but lasting peace will come to Darfur and the rest of Sudan only when the country is led by a government genuinely committed to the cause. Remove the NCP from power and, as a senior UN official in Sudan told me recently, "the problem in Darfur is over."

In most misgoverned nations, talk of such regime change would seem little more than a pipe dream – but remarkably, improbably, there exists in Sudan today a chance of revolution through the ballot box. Under the terms of an existing but neglected peace agreement, signed in 2005 to end the 21-year civil war between the Khartoum government and southern rebels, Sudan is obligated to hold a national election by July 2009. This peace deal, known as the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), also promised the south a referendum on independence in 2011. Next year's election is essentially the last chance to stave off what will otherwise be a resounding vote for southern secession, by showing southerners that they will be allowed to compete for national power in a unified, democratic Sudan.

Of course, commitments from Khartoum are always suspect, and there is particular reason to expect the NCP to break this one. Since seizing power in 1989, the NCP has attacked, marginalized, or alienated too much of the electorate to win fairly. It is widely expected to do all it can to delay, manipulate, and potentially even cancel the vote. Two years past deadline, the national parliament has yet to pass an election bill, while the NCP spent much of 2007 stalling on its commitments under the CPA, which included several critical election precursors.

With foreign attention concentrated so intensely on the peacekeeping mission, these failures have provoked only minimal international protest. To mark the third anniversary of the CPA earlier this month, for instance, the White House released a statement of just two paragraphs – one of which was a reiteration of Washington's commitment to the peacekeeping mission.

This represents a tragically shortsighted approach to Sudan; the elections deserve to be much more than just an afterthought for American diplomats. To be sure, it is hard to be optimistic that Bashir will ever permit an election that threatens his grip on power. But any vote, however flawed, will challenge the entrenched political order and give the opposition a chance to organize. Its conduct also represents the only scenario through which Sudan might survive as a unified state past the south's likely secession vote in 2011. And despite provocations such as this latest appointment, recent history shows that even the NCP can be influenced by a sustained campaign of targeted international pressure: Recall its eventual acquiescence to the UN peacekeeping mission.

With its current focus on peacekeepers, the Bush administration risks allowing this critical election to become just another broken NCP promise. The peacekeeping mission in Darfur is surely important, but if the US wants to see long-term peace in Sudan, the new special envoy must place greater emphasis on the implementation of the CPA and the conduct of a free, fair, and potentially regime-shattering election next year.

Nathaniel Myers, a political analyst, recently returned from Sudan.

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