Sudan's crucial presidential and parliamentary elections – a possible milestone for peace in a country rattled by two decades of civil war – appear to be well underway.
This week, a former southern rebel group that now shares power in Khartoum with its northern rivals signed a memorandum of understanding to form an electoral alliance with a northern opposition group, bringing the strongest-yet challenge to the rule of President Omar al-Bashir.
The very fact that the southern rebels, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement, have a campaign strategy for the 2010 elections is a hopeful sign, since the SPLM is thought to be preparing itself for a referendum in 2011 that could give southern Sudan its independence. But in the meantime, SPLM leaders are willing to fight for power in a unified Sudan, this time with votes rather than with weapons of war.
"There are a number of hopeful signs for this election," says Abdul Rahim Ali Mohammad Ibrahim, a political analyst who has close ties to Mr. Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP). "The leaders of the SPLM are saying openly that they want to stay in a united Sudan, although a number of people in their party do not feel the same way."
Like many observers, Mr. Ibrahim says the SPLM's alliance with the northern-based Umma Party of former Sudanese Prime Minster Sadiq al-Mahdi should be seen more as a symbolic gesture of mutual support against a common political enemy.
"This agreement is more in the interest of the Umma Party than it is for the SPLM," says Ibrahim. "I think it says something not very material or substantial, and somewhat harmless. Sadiq al-Mahdi was in Juba, and he wanted to make a gesture to the SPLM."
A key step for peace
Sudan's general elections, scheduled for April 2010, are a potentially crucial step for peace in the war-torn North African country, since they would give Sudanese voters from north and south and even the strife-torn Darfur region their first chance to elect their leaders in a decade. At war for nearly two decades – most recently in the ongoing conflict in the western region of Darfur – Sudan has been ruled by an active-duty general, Bashir, who led a coup that overthrew an elected government in 1989.
If they go well, and are perceived to be fair, elections could be Sudan's best chance of remaining a united and peaceful country.
"The SPLM is attempting to create a coalition that is a political counterweight to the NCP's domination of the current system," says John Prendergast, an Africa expert at the Enough Project, a human rights group that focuses on the prevention of genocide. The NCP has strong advantages over opposition parties, Mr. Prendergast says, and its past use of bribery and armed militias to undermine its enemies could be the main motivation for the SPLM to use all methods, including peaceful political ones, to make friends and influence people.
With this alliance, he adds, "The NCP will have to rig the elections fairly profoundly in order to win next year's vote."
The South will rise again?
Explaining the alliance to a reporter from Voice of America, Mr. Mahdi said the Umma Party was prepared to accept the possibility of South Sudan's secession from Khartoum, and sees this agreement as a chance to maintain peaceful relations throughout.
"We think its time to begin to discuss the possibilities of separation and an independent South, so that we are prepared for the eventuality," said Mahdi. A pragmatic and moderate former prime minister of Sudan, Mahdi was overthrown by Bashir at a time of intense negotiations with the rebellious leadership of southern Sudan in 1989.
The SPLM's participation in the 2010 elections is by no means guaranteed, and its relations with Bashir's party have been rocky. In October 2007, the SPLM temporarily suspended its participation in the so-called Unity Government with Bashir's NCP, because of what it regarded as broken promises. Disagreements over boundary lines between northern and southern controlled states – lines that cut across some of Sudan's most productive oil fields – and distrust over the sharing of the government's oil revenues have at times led to sporadic bouts of fighting between soldiers loyal to Khartoum and those loyal to the southern capital of Juba.
This is not the SPLM's first foray into political alliances. During the 1990s, when the SPLM was still at war with the Bashir government in Khartoum, the SPLM's leader John Garang forged a National Democratic Alliance with several northern parties, and maintained these ties leading up to the eventual peace treaty that ended the civil war in January 2005. But Murtada al-Ghali, editor of the Khartoum-based newspaper Al Ajras al-Huriya, says that the agreement between SPLM and the Umma Party is "significant."
"An alliance with Umma Party is very significant, as SPLM moves to elections," says Mr. Ghali. "These elections have real importance to the SPLM and NCP, because there are a lot of issues still to be dealt with, and a lack of trust between the two sides."