Bashir: The only choice left in Sudan elections

In the Sudan elections that should have offered a choice between unity or southern secession, political Islam or secular governance, only President Omar Al-Bashir's party is running. Twelve parties are boycotting the vote.

Amr Nabil/AP
Sudan Elections: Sudanese pass under a billboard supporting Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in Khartoum, Sudan, Thursday, during a Muslim Sufi celebration.

This small city of tree-lined streets is so quiet that you wouldn’t even know that the town is about to take part in the first free Sudan election in 24 years.

Just a year ago, Kadugli – nestled in the Nuba Mountains and not far both Darfur and South Sudan – was a no-go zone. Bandits carried out carjackings at will, gunfire could be heard in the town center at night, and radical Islamist militants in the neighboring region of Darfur suggested that they might be willing to expand their struggle against the Sudanese government and include Kadugli in their operations.

But even though tighter security and recently paved roads have improved people's lives, voters will have little to choose from in these elections, which begin April 11.

In an election that should have given Sudanese clear choices for their future – a choice between unity, or separation between the north and south; a choice between political Islam or secular governance – there will only be one party running, the party of President Omar Al-Bashir.

The Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, declared a boycott last week, claiming that the elections would be rigged, that its candidates were harassed, that the security situation in the Darfur region was so bad that most Darfuris would not be able to cast their votes.

Eleven other parties have since joined the boycott, giving Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir a clear advantage as front runner in a one-man race. In the South, the SPLM continues its election campaign, cementing its control over territory it controlled during its 20-year civil war against the north.

Somewhere, a fat lady is singing.

“There are no choices in this election; the two parties are all going in one direction, toward power,” says Ahmed Sabiel, a political and risk analyst in Khartoum. “There is no clear strategy of how to keep the country together, or how to rule the country. There is no clear policy, and there is no clear objective. All the parties are just focusing on power.”

Two main powers pull apart

On paper, these elections should offer Sudanese voters a choice between two vastly different views of government. The ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Bashir has its roots in political Islam, and offers unity under a system that draws inspiration for governance, economics, personal ethics, and criminal justice from the teachings of the Koran.

The SPLM, while it draws most of its support from the Christian dominated south, offers a more secular vision of government, with no state religion and with a secular constitution governing all Sudanese fairly.

But in the past five years of a powersharing agreement and a Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the NCP and the SPLM have left both parties distrustful of each other, and visibly pining for a separation.

Salva Kiir, the SPLM leader and Sudan’s current vice president, declined to run against Mr. Bashir in these elections, choosing instead to lead the SPLM in the South, has signaled his preference for secession in the upcoming referendum planned for 2011. And Mr. Bashir – who faces charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) because of his role in directing the war in the Darfur region, which killed 300,000 – has publicly stated that he would accept secession.

Bashir's party: Boycott an excuse

For Bashir’s party, the boycott is just an excuse for the SPLM and other opposition parties to avoid defeat.

“They feel they are not in a position to compete,” says Rabbie Abdelatti, the deputy minister for communications, and a senior member of Bashir’s NCP. “We are committed, and we will be very pleased whether the elections are positive or negative to us. We will accept the result of the referendum [to be held in 2011] whether it is unity with the South and North, or it is secession. We are fulfilling our agreement, not playing games.”

SPLM hard-liners like Pagan Amom, say that the NCP has done little to honor its signed commitments from the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which officially ended the north-south conflict in 2005.

“The NCP for the last five years have obstructed every action of the CPA,” Mr. Amom says in a phone interview. “The boundaries between the North and South have not been demarcated. The referendum rules have not been established. The boundaries of the [disputed area of] Abyei has not been demarcated, and even the wealth sharing reports [on oil revenues] are not credible.”

“There is not a little ground for trust here,” Amom says.

First election in a generation

Elections in developing countries are never easy, and especially so in a country like Sudan, where military coups are common, where the state controls all broadcast media, and where a generation has grown up without experiencing an election.

The Carter Center, an international election observer group led by former president Jimmy Carter, issued a report requesting a slight delay in elections to allow logistical problems like incomplete voter registration lists to be resolved. President Bashir hotly responded by threatening to throw out all foreign observer missions.

In Kadugli, the last major campaign rally was a month ago, when President Bashir came to speak at a rally well-attended by supporters. But since then, campaigning has largely stopped.

The SPLM here, as elsewhere, has boycotted the presidential elections. Parliamentary elections have been postponed for two months, in an agreement with the NCP and election officials. Campaign posters are few, although there is one attempt to win over southern non-Arab voters who make up the majority here. In one, Bashir is holding a spear, and wearing a flamboyant black feather tribal headdress and an even bigger grin.

“There has been total neglect of the Nubian communities,” says an international aid worker based in Kadugli, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There has been no integration of the armed groups, such as the SPLA [the armed wing of the SPLM]. So when the South votes to secede, many people here will want to separate, too. I’m afraid it may become another Darfur.”

'We do not have to lose hope'

In Khartoum, the capital, many young voters seem stunned that their first chance to vote may be meaningless.

Iman Al-Jack, a young teacher of Arabic language to foreign expatriates, says she was depressed to hear that the opposition parties were boycotting the elections, and she doesn’t know how she’ll vote.

“Before, I thought there might be a change, because there were some players who have some weight, but now that the biggest candidate is boycotting the election, it’s not going to change things,” she says. “This will just make the regime legitimate, which came to power through a coup.”

Yet while she admits that both of the main parties now seem bent on breaking up Sudan into two countries, she refuses to give up hope. “Youths are trying to say we want unity. The people who want separation have reasonable motives for their opinions, but we can still speak for unity. The politicians didn’t do enough to make unity in society. But it’s not too late. We do not have to lose hope.”

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