Sudan election: Voters savor a tiny taste of democracy

Day 1 of the complicated three-day election in Sudan ended without violence. Despite a widespread boycott by opposition parties and allegations of fraud, many voters seemed happy just to cast their ballots.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Sudanese refugee women line up to vote in the Sudanese election at a polling station at the refugee camp in the outskirts of the Darfur town of el Fasher, Sunday.

Given the 24-year lag since Sudan’s last multiparty election, voting in today's Sudanese election proceeded rather smoothly.

On Day 1 of the three-day vote, millions of Sudanese crowded into polling stations across the country to choose their president, their national and state assemblies, their governors, and other local officials in a very complex balloting process that Sudan’s National Election Commission says was designed to prevent rigging.

Several parties have boycotted the elections in general, citing fears of rigging by the government, and the nation’s two largest opposition parties – including an armed former rebel group that runs the semiautonomous south of the country – have withdrawn their candidates for presidency, leaving President Omar al-Bashir as a virtual shoo-in.

But with nearly 100,000 soldiers deployed across northern Sudan to keep security, and police kept on high alert, the first day passed without significant violence. And for those who voted Sunday, the experience was an affirmation that normal citizens, on paper, do have power over their leaders, and thus they have a say in their own and their country’s future.

A taste of democracy

Abdul Mohamad Fahmi, who was born in the year of Sudan’s last election, in 1986, describes the experience of casting a vote as “amazing.”

At polling stations across the capital, Khartoum, even those who expressed their doubts about whether the Sudanese public was actually ready for democracy said that today was an historic opportunity for Sudan to put 22 years of war behind it.

“As an African and as an Arab, I can say that we need some time for democracy to take hold in Sudan,” says Bahauddin Ibrahim Mohamad, a civil engineer voting in Omdurman, the sister city of Khartoum. “I actually appreciate the military government. Until people get to know how to rule themselves with democracy, we need a strong leader. If people get a taste of democracy, they’ll think that they are strong and then may break this democracy, giving the military a reason to come back again.”

His wife, Salwa Awad, an architectural engineer, doesn’t exactly disagree with her husband, but sweetly puts the emphasis on the positive. “We want a strong democracy, and we are now smelling a little bit this thing called democracy, just the letters ‘d’ and ‘e.’ So let’s try to enjoy it.”

Ballots galore

Even for voters used to casting ballots in a vibrant democracy, these elections would be a daunting process.

In polling stations of the north, there are eight separate ballots to be filled out and placed into specific boxes.

In the semiautonomous south, there are 12 ballots to be filled out, as voters cast votes for both national elections and for their own government of Southern Sudan.

But the true confusion came last week when leaders of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) – the main opposition party and the ruling party for the country’s non-Arab, Christian-dominated south – withdrew their candidate for president and called for a general boycott of the elections in the north.

Just days ago, however, senior SPLM leader Salva Kiir denied that there was a boycott in the north.

Southern people living in the north – who number at least 1.5 million – seem confused about whether they should vote or not.

In the Al-Haj Yusuf neighborhood of north Khartoum, a slum area full of displaced southern Sudanese, the main polling station was quiet, with only a few elderly voters casting ballots.

One elderly southern man, who called himself Ali until a friend told him to use his tribal name, Shol La Ajeng, as is the fashion with the virulently secular SPLM, said he was voting because “elections are going to improve people’s lives. These people who want to boycott the elections, do they want us to go backward to war or do they want us to go forward?”

In Omdurman, a housekeeper named Hana Ahmed Abdul Najeeb says she has come to the polls to change the situation in her country.

“Democracy is about personal opinions, and it’s good for us to share our opinions," says the native of the troubled western region of Darfur who was forced from her home by war. "We need development, and we need to solve the problem in Darfur. That’s why I’m coming here, to see this present situation change to a better situation.”

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