With election victory, Sudan's Bashir stands out in a chaotic region
Facing international charges of war crimes, President Bashir easily cruised another term in office after an election widely criticized as unfair. Yet he offers Sudan, and allies in the Arab world, something that is in short supply: stability.
Khartoum, Sudan — Cheers of "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") erupted from members of Sudan's ruling party as election officials announced Monday what everyone had anticipated: another term for President Omar al-Bashir.
Winning 94.05% of votes cast, Mr. Bashir easily outpaced his opponents, a field of unknowns, and has another five-year mandate to add to his quarter-century in power.
Most major opposition parties refused to front any candidates in protest at a lack of representation, ongoing conflicts, restrictions on press freedoms, and the jailing of activists prior to polling. Western nations dismissed the vote before the first ballots were even cast, saying conditions were not conducive to a credible election.
Now attention turns to what Bashir, and Sudan, can achieve in his next term. Sudan faces bloody insurgencies in the western Darfur and southern Kordofan regions that Bashir has battled for years without resolution. Western economic sanctions have taken their toll on the economy, and with the secession of oil-rich South Sudan in 2011, Bashir's government needs more foreign investment.
Yet, ironically, the Sudanese strongman may have placed himself in a better position to attract Gulf investment to the country, and cultivate an image of stability as much of the Arab world struggles to restore centralized authority, a challenge exemplified by the implosion of neighboring Libya where the Islamic State is gaining ground.
"Regional countries look to Sudan as a good regime for their interests ... in terms of radical Islam," says political analyst and human rights activist El Barag El Nazir. "The Sudanese regime may be seen as protective tool against expansion or extension of radical Islamics like [Nigeria's] Boko Haram, [ISIS] and other Islamist groups.”
A guarantor of stability
For the majority of Sudanese, the elections were a non-event. Most eligible voters did not bother to show up to polling stations at all; overall turnout was less than 50 percent. Khartoum had the lowest turnout at 34 percent, revealing deep disillusionment with Bashir's overtures toward democratic participation.
"The election actually came with bad results for the [ruling] National Congress Party," says Mr. El Nazir. Though Bashir won, he says low turnout reveals shaky popular support for the ruling party.
"If you voted or you didn't, the result will be the same, so it doesn't matter," says Ahmed, a middle-aged father of six, sipping a cup of spiced mint tea in a middle-class district in Khartoum. A non-voter, he voices a common disillusionment here.
Hashim Khalifa, who works in a bank, says he didn’t vote, but he supports the president as a guarantor of stability. "Everybody witnessed what happened in the other countries during the Arab Spring when people tried to change the regimes there, so I think it's better to stick to Bashir," he says.
Back in the spring of 2011, Sudanese watched enviously as Libya and Egypt overthrew dictators. The subsequent chaos may be Bashir’s trump card: he stands as a bulwark against further state collapse in the region.
El Nazir says that this means regional governments may overlook Sudan's human rights record, because it is a stable government that will not provide a vacuum for Islamic State to fill. The International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant for Bashir over alleged genocide in Darfur.
Fixing the economy
Bashir’s biggest obstacle, however, will be the economy. He has to juggle punishing US-led sanctions and a smaller economy with the loss of access to South Sudan’s oil, which has pushed up inflation and sunk the Sudanese pound.
The dollar now trades on the black market for more than nine Sudanese pounds as compared to half of that before South Sudan seceded in 2011. For many would-be voters in Khartoum, the feeble economy was the big reason they stayed away.
"I am hungry. I didn't have time to vote," says Fatima, a single mother of three selling peanut butter off a rough wooden table near a bus terminal. "I wish [Bashir] the best, [but] I don't think politics affects me....I only get money from this [business]," she adds, knocking on the table with her wares spread out. "[Bashir] doesn't do anything."
Courting the Saudis
Though billed as an attempt to protect Islamic holy sites, Bashir's recent military intervention in Yemen seems aimed at cultivating wealthy Sunni allies. After years of cozying up to Shiite Iran to the Sunni Gulf's displeasure, Bashir opted to join the Saudi-led air strikes against Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Large new billboards in Khartoum show Bashir alongside the Saudi monarch with fighter jets soaring behind. It may bring dividends at home. Mr. Khalifa says he's cautiously optimistic that Bashir is now "playing the game" with more powerful Arabs.
"He needs to improve his economic situation and he needs support from Arab countries," says El Nazir. "It's not just for financial support from Gulf countries but also political support."