President Bashir's chief rival boycotts Sudan election

Sudan’s leading opposition party candidate Yasir Arman pulled out of the Sudan April 11 election today, citing concerns of voter fraud and insecurity in the Darfur region.

Ebrahim Hamid/AFP/Newscom
Yasir Arman, leading opposition party candidate to Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir, talks to the press following an opposition demonstration in front the office of the elections commission in Khartoum on March 4. Arman pulled out of the election on Thursday, over concerns of voter fraud and insecurity in the Darfur region.

Sudan’s leading opposition party candidate – running against President Omar Al-Bashir – pulled out of the election today, over concerns of voter fraud and insecurity in the Darfur region.

The pullout of Yasir Arman, the candidate for the southern-Sudan based Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), comes less than two weeks before the April 11 national election begins, and is likely to cast doubt over the credibility of the Sudan election process.

[UPDATE: Late Thursday, the other main opposition parties joined the SPLM’s election boycott.]

“This is a very significant decision, and it has the potential to be positive in resolving the problems of the process, but it also has the potential to create instability,” says Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan analyst for the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi. “What now remains to be seen is whether the political forces try to collect all their scattered pieces to create [a] cohesive idea to stabilize the situation.”

What's at stake?

Stability, of course, has been in short supply in Sudan for more than two decades. A rebellion by the largely Christian southern part of the country begun in 1983 was only resolved in 2005, after the loss of some 1.9 million lives, with a Comprehensive Peace Agreement. That deal gave both the northern National Congress Party (of President Bashir) and the SPLM (of late rebel leader John Garang) equal powers in a power-sharing government.

[Read the extraordinary story of the son of a tribal chief who helped broker the peace agreement.]

The coming elections are a core part of that 2005 peace agreement, to be followed by a referendum in which southern Sudanese voters will get to decide whether to remain in a unified Sudan, or to secede and form a separate country. Failure to hold elections, even flawed ones, could push both the north and south back into conflict, some experts warn.

The SPLM boycott follows calls by international observer missions such as the Carter Center to delay the elections, because of concerns about security in the Darfur region, and logistical difficulties that favour the ruling NCP party. Some of the problems, such as missing names on voter registration lists, are easily fixable. Others, such as the reported intimidation of journalists and opposition candidates, and the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region, are not.

Meddle in the elections, lose a finger?

Sudan’s elections are “at risk on many fronts,” said Carter Center field office director Graham Elson in a preliminary report last week, calling for a slight delay. President Bashir responded angrily that foreign observers could be expelled, and even have their fingers amputated for interfering in Sudan’s elections.

In some ways, the current boycott signals that a split in the country has already begun, with Bashir likely to win reelection by default. Salva Kiir, Sudan’s current vice president and SPLM’s top official, decided not to run against Bashir, and instead took on the top leadership role in South Sudan itself. A pullout from the April elections is, thus, a signal that secession is almost inevitable.

“The NCP did not create the conditions for unity,” says Mr. Hikmat. “It is the NCP that did not want unity, so the SPLM has decided to go for boycott.”

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