Should South Sudan really hold an election this year?

With elections in June, the three-year-old country has to decide if the ballot box is the best place to establish peace amid a year-long civil war. Here is what's at stake if they decide to push forward.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, South Sudan's President Salva Kiir, left, shakes hands with rebel leader and former vice president Riek Machar, right, after signing an agreement at the end of talks in Arusha, Tanzania. South Sudan's warring factions have agreed to reunify their political party, a conflict resolution organization said Thursday, with South Sudan President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar signing the agreement to unite the ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement on Wednesday in the Tanzanian town of Arusha, according to the Conflict Management Initiative.

South Sudan's government has announced that it will hold elections in June. But a hasty vote in this young and fragile nation – already mired in civil war – could cause more instability.

The conflict began in December 2013 after government troops massacred civilians in the capital, Juba. The killings were precipitated by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, the current rebel leader. Revenge killings subsequently spread across the country, often along ethnic lines, plunging the country into a war that shows no signs of stopping.

Tens of thousands of people have died, and 2 million have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Fighting continues in the oil-rich northeast, and violence is flaring in the central and northwest regions, as well as near Juba.

Though atrocities against civilians from both sides have been the hallmark of this unpopular war, Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar have appealed to ideals of democracy to curry domestic and international support.

At the heart of their war of words is the rebels' claim that Kiir is a dictator whose troops’ deadly record renders him illegitimate. But Kiir refuses to step down, pointing to his constitutional mandate to serve until this summer. He further notes that the rebels have committed plenty of massacres themselves, accusing Machar of aiming to take power by force.

As that deadline approaches, Kiir insists that there must be an election to keep with a constitution he is accused of selectively following.

But many say that peace should be properly established before any elections are held to ensure results are accepted by all parties.The question now is whether a deal can be reached to avert a constitutional crisis and further chaos.

Why does Kiir want elections?

Kiir's presidential term expires on July 9, 2015, four years after South Sudan gained independence from Sudan. After that, he will no longer be the legitimate president unless he is democratically reelected.

The word “legitimate” has become somewhat of an obsession for Kiir’s administration as a way to differentiate themselves from the rebels. Banners periodically hang in Juba declaring Kiir as the only legitimate president of South Sudan.

But Machar controls large parts of the nation’s northeast, lawlessness is spreading, and many are frustrated with lack of development by the current government.

If Kiir holds on to power unconstitutionally, there may be further rebellion, analysts say.

"The government cannot stay and allow its legitimacy to run out in July," presidential spokesperson Ateny Wek Ateny told the Monitor. "We have to have an election that is constitutionally required, and we have to maintain legitimacy."

But the election call is not popular. Opposition parties, activists, and Machar's rebels are all against a vote.

The US, in rare public criticism against Kiir's government, said earlier this month that it will also not support the proposed vote.

Why are so many opposed to an election?

The main concern is that credible elections cannot take place during a civil war.

"Over one-third of the population won't be in a position to participate in these elections due to insecurity and widespread displacement," writes South Sudanese analyst Augustino Ting Mayai in a recent report recommending postponing voting for at least three years.

The election may not be constitutional, either. There has been no voter census, political parties aren't registered, and prescribed deadlines have passed.

Mr. Ateny, the president's spokesman, said the Constitution doesn't require peace and they'll use a seven-year-old census with adjustments to account for those who have been killed in the war.

All parties can hold national conventions and register before July, he added.

But there are financial hurdles too. The government says an election would cost $517 million at a time when civil servants are going unpaid due to the war and a drop in global oil prices. Oil profits account for more than 90 percent of government revenue, but production has also been cut by a third due to damaged pumping facilities from the fighting.

Last year the international community spent over a billion dollars to avert a famine caused by fighting, while the government spent the bulk of its budget on war. More than $30 million alone was spent on weapons last year.

"A big, big number is suffering from food shortages," opposition leader Lam Akol told the Monitor in Juba. "I think it is cynical for us to spend almost $520 million for an election."

Would elections be credible?

Ironically, elections may end up undermining rather than bolstering Kiir's claim to the presidency.

No one has declared candidacy against Kiir. Since Machar is boycotting it, the election would take place only in government-held areas dominated by Kiir's party.

"The political meaning of the 2015 elections would be illegitimacy," writes Mr. Mayai, the analyst.

Edmund Yakani, a prominent activist, says that an unrecognized election could lead to more defections and fighting.

But this may not bother Kiir if he can present himself with the semblance of legitimacy. "The elections will continue," Ateny says in an interview. "The government will live up to its constitutional obligations."

Is there another way?

Already, 18 opposition parties have sued to cancel the vote. If the supreme court follows suit, Kiir could back down and save face. But that doesn't answer the question of who will be in charge come July 9.

The parliament could amend the Constitution to extend Kiir's tenure. This won't be easy. A large caucus from the Equatorian region in the south has been at odds with the president and may not agree.

Most observers told the Monitor the real solution is for Kiir and Machar to make peace and form a unity government.

"Peace first, and then you have election," said Mr. Akol, the opposition leader.

But even with five months until the proposed polls, few are optimistic.

Kiir and Machar have agreed to stop fighting many times in the last year but each time broke their promise within hours. They signed an agreement in Tanzania last week to unify their political parties, but fighting continued as usual and the two men have since increased their vitriol.

Now they are both shuttling between separate negotiations in Sudan, Ethiopia, and Tanzania, apparently stalling.

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