Sudan election problems: few enough to be legitimate?

As voting ended today in Sudan's election, voters in the south complained about being unable to find their names on the voter rolls. Jimmy Carter says the election is a major stepping stone in the peace process.

Nasser Nasser/AP
A Sudanese election worker prepares voting forms while waiting for voters at a polling station during the last day of polling for the multiparty general elections, in the city of Um Durman, Sudan, Thursday.

At nightfall today, voting in Sudan’s first elections in 24 years will come to an end. But the discussion of whether this five-day-long exercise was a legitimate election is just beginning.

From the earliest hours of Sunday it was clear that there were problems in the process.

Set aside the fact that most of the opposition were boycotting the elections in Sudan's north, which they viewed as rigged. Registered voters, particularly in the south, complained after visits to multiple polling stations that they couldn’t find their names, and thus couldn’t vote.

IN PICTURES: Sudan elections

Ballot boxes filled up faster than expected in places, because of the size of the ballot paper. The illiteracy of many voters, especially among women, and the fact that many Sudanese were casting votes for the first time, all of this slowed down the process, forcing the National Election Commission to extend voting by two additional days.

Yet, despite the hurdles, voters like Santino Atiang Dut Atiang seem determined to cast their votes. Mr. Atiang has carried his registration slip to at least 15 polling stations since voting started on Sunday, but has yet to find his name. Why does he continue? “I want to vote,” he says.

With not one but two wars hanging in the balance, the credibility of Sudan’s elections is crucial. This election is a major milestone in the five-year-old Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the warring north and southern parts of Sudan – and it will be watched carefully by separate rebel movements in the Darfur region on whether they can trust the Sudanese government in Khartoum to make place for differing points of view in a new democratically run Sudan.

“The legitimacy of these elections depends on two things: the legal criteria for voter turnout must be 60 percent in order for this to be seen as the legitimate voice of the people, and if not, there must be a runoff; and secondly, these elections must be accepted by the people who participate in them, and will they be able to deal with each other under a new government,” says Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group’s office in Nairobi.

“I hope these political forces will ... not allow violence to happen after the results come out,” Mr. Hikmat adds.

SPLM boycott roils

Even before polling started on Sunday, 12 of the main opposition parties, including the largest one, the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), withdrew their presidential candidates from the elections, citing logistical problems, and a lack of access to state-run media. SPLM voters in Khartoum seemed to have the wind knocked out of them at the announcement of the boycott, since they saw this as their last chance to bring about democratic reform to Sudan, which has lived under a military dictatorship for 22 years.

Infighting within the SPLM confounded the problems, with some SPLM leaders in the north insisting that the boycott was total, and SPLM leaders in the south saying there was no boycott at all, beyond the withdrawal of presidential candidate Yasir Arman.

For their part, National Election Commission members – all chosen by the Khartoum government – worked to reassure voters and the press that the process would be fair. Mukhtar Al-Asam, a senior NEC commissioner, assured reporters at a press conference before the voting began that the polls “cannot be rigged.” “International experts have examined this system, and they tell us it cannot be rigged,” Mr. Al-Asam told reporters. Every precaution, from ballot papers with serial numbers to numbered zip-ties to prevent ballot-box tampering, has been taken, he said.

Yet the best-laid plans of Khartoum may not have taken account of the unadministered confusion that often marks life in Sudan.

At polling stations in Khartoum, voters were few in areas loyal to the opposition, and jam-packed in areas where the ruling National Congress Party is strong. Voter enthusiasm was high, too, in the South, despite the fact that many Southerners intend to vote in favor of secession in a referendum to be held in January 2011. But the inability of voters to find their names on registration lists sent many voters home without casting a ballot.

Where's my polling station?

In Juba, unscientific counts by both foreign reporters and by the SPLM put percentage of voter turnout at most places between 30 percent and 60 percent by the end of the third day, with little turnout Wednesday. At some polling stations in Juba, only 20 to 40 of the 750 potential voters had cast ballots by Wednesday.

Most south Sudanese head to where they registered to vote late last year, but their names have been subdivided across a wider swath of polling stations with no apparent system to help the voter locate his proper place.

“Voters are tired,” says James Duku Isaac, the head official at a Juba polling station, who said dozens of would-be voters left his station in frustration upon not locating their names. “People are moving from station to station around Juba. They are searching for their names. They have the heart, but they can’t find their names. This is the problem.”

“There are so many things NEC could have done properly if they really cared,” says Anne Itto, deputy secretary general of the SPLM, accusing the election commission of “negligence.”

Some of these problems were anticipated, says Ms. Itto. The SPLM ran mock voting exercises before the vote, and found that 80 percent of illiterate voters spoiled their ballots, voting for more than one candidate in the same race, for instance. This figure dropped to 11 percent for literate voters, still an alarming figure.

One woman, early in the Sunday morning queue outside a rural polling center near Terekeka, was clearly baffled about how to vote. After trying to first mark the ballot with her inked finger, she then had to be shown by an election official how to hold a pen, a basic instrument she had clearly never used before. She is not alone. Eighty-eight percent of women here are illiterate, according to UNFPA.

Southern Sudan’s vice president, Riek Machar, had to go five different polling centers before finding his name, according to his wife Angelina Teny, an independent candidate contesting for the seat of oil-rich Unity state. “And he’s lucky,” she said by phone, saying that in rural areas many had to travel many kilometers, searching desperately in brutal mid-day heat for the right tree-shaded station.

How elections play in Darfur and the South

For Southerners, these elections are an important stepping stone toward the referendum, when they can finally vote to separate from the Arab-and Muslim-dominated North. And some voters, like 30-year-old Angelo Alibo, see this vote as a chance to voice their own frustration with the ruling SPLM.

“Southerners are very excited about the elections because in most cases people are very tired of leaders who are appointed by decrees,” says Mr. Alibo. “For me, the election is important, but the most important one is the referendum.”

For some activists, the voting irregularities are clear evidence that this election would never be free and fair. Some human rights activists see these elections as a mere exercise to give President Omar al-Bashirindicted on war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court for his role in the Darfur conflict – to extend his 22 years in power, and to give himself democratic legitimacy. President Bashir came to power by overthrowing the elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

John Prendergast, an activist with the Enough Project (a Washington-based lobby group against genocide), warns that Bashir will use his likely reelection as justification to fight an even harder war in Darfur, and also to undermine the SPLM, who have had an uneasy power-sharing agreement with Bashir over the past five years.

“Once Bashir feels unjustly "legitimized," he will gear up the war machine in Darfur to defeat the rebels there,” says Mr. Prendergast, in an email sent from his Blackberry. Bashir will “intensify efforts to undermine stability in the South through support to disaffected militias ... to undermine the holding of the independence referendum. Result? The return of full-scale national war.”

How Jimmy Carter sees it

Yet Jimmy Carter, the main international election observer in Sudan, says that these elections can be a key to future peace.

“This is part of the integral process that has to be done if the CPA is going to be implemented,” says Mr. Carter in an interview. “So we’re looking forward to the culmination of the entire process, and this is an unavoidable step in that process. And although there will be serious faults in the election, there is no doubt about that – which we’ll assess later on – it has to be done.”

“We are focused on the entire peace agreement. And there are two major stepping stones that have to be accommodated. One is the election and the other one is the referendum. And you can’t ignore one and then concentrate on the other. You have to concentrate on both of them.”

What would be the consequences of the referendum not taking place? - “I think a war, another outbreak of war.”

IN PICTURES: Sudan elections

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