Sudan Holds Elections, of a Sort; Military Ruler Is Expected to Win


DURING the 12-day presidential campaign, Sudan's military strongman, Lt. Gen. Omar Ahmed al-Bashir, didn't see the need to rally supporters, despite his doubtful popularity.

General Bashir came to Sudan's helm in a military coup six years ago. This year, he appeared at only a handful of election rallies. But given his grip on power, it was clear from the beginning that he would easily win the presidential contest in Africa's largest nation.

Residents of this decidedly Islamic state completed the poll for the presidency and parliament yesterday. Results will be announced Wednesday.

Leaders of Sudan's banned opposition parties call the elections illegal and unconstitutional. A quarter of the presidential contenders called on Sudan's Supreme Court to postpone the elections until Bashir steps down from office and allows a neutral government to oversee balloting under a multiparty system. The Court turned down the appeal and forbade candidates from withdrawing from the contest.

Government critics said Sudan's regime and its backers would lose in a multiparty ballot, so they devised "nonparty" elections that are little more than a public-relations exercise.

Government backers countered that the elections were a valid Islamic alternative to Western-style voting that they say revolves around money and an illusionary choice between similar candidates.

Bashir's 1989 coup toppled Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. Mr. Mahdi and his followers boycotted the vote.

"All the presidential contenders knew from the beginning they have no chance - they have no political organization behind them, no administrative organization, no finances. Whereas the president has all the machinery of the state," Mahdi said in an interview during the elections. "People are being asked to sanction the continuity of something from which they already suffer so much. Why should they?"

Sudan declared itself an Islamic state five years ago. Since then, the regime has cracked down on opposition organizations and banned political parties.

About 900 people ran for 275 seats in Parliament. The field of no less than 41 Sudanese presidential hopefuls included obscure, low-ranking former military officials, university lecturers, and a local police captain.

The head of the government-appointed election commission, Abdal Moneim al-Nahas, admits the majority of contenders aren't serious. "Most are not convincing characters. They haven't got charisma and magic, and that's the difficulty we are facing," Mr. Nahas said.

Sheik Hassan al-Turabi, the country's leading Islamic ideologue and the head of the National Islamic Front, is said to be the power behind the president. Leaders in Dr. Turabi's fundamentalist Muslim movement hold key posts in the government, military, and commerce. Bashir is widely thought to rule at their pleasure.

While Islam is embraced in northern Sudan, the Front is not. As evidence of Sudanese voters' lack of enthusiasm for it, the Front has never won more than about a quarter of the vote in any democratic balloting. The highly political brotherhood manages to side-step the ban on political parties.

"This is a free election," Turabi said in a Monitor interview. "There are no parties because parties in Africa mean only tribes, with beautiful party names, or sects. There are no parties here, but this election is free for everyone, there is no exclusion."

About half of the seats in the 400-member Parliament have already been decided. A "national congress" chose 125 members in January, and dozens of candidates ran unopposed.

On Khartoum's largely unpaved streets, trucks and cars merge with donkey traffic. Many bystanders here said they didn't even know where polling stations were.

Others, like Mohamed Hassim Awad, a professor of economics at Khartoum University, wondered what the balloting means. "I don't know why there's this kind of apathy," Mr. Awad says. "Is it because the result is a foregone conclusion? Or that the people think General Bashir will be elected anyway?"

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