While elections and electoral processes provide a means by which social conflict can be channeled into a constructive popular deliberation and dialogue, elections are nevertheless a process of competition for power in which, in some cases, violent conflicts can take place. In the case of Sudan, the 11-15 April presidential and legislative elections were planned as an important milestone in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), putting an end to 21 years of civil war between the Government of Sudan (Khartoum) and the southern-based Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA). The elections result, announcing on the 26 April Omar Hassan Al-Bashir as President and the victory of his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) with 68% of vote, was no surprise. However, the strength of the peace agreement has been critically put under trial during the whole electoral process. The stakes are high especially considering elections were suppose to lead to next year´s referendum where southerners should be deciding whether to fully secede from Khartoum or not.
Significant issues at stake
With 42,200,000 inhabitants living on 2,500,000 km square, Sudan is the largest country of Africa and the Arab world. Sudan also beats records in terms of political instability, lack of security, socio-economic crisis and aid dependency. In the south between 50 and 60 percent of the population’s livelihoods depend on humanitarian relief. If this wasn’t enough, in 2003 the emergence of a violent conflict in Darfur caused the death of more than 300,000 people as well as the displacement of more than 2.7 million in a region where more than half of the population is receiving humanitarian support.
Under such circumstances, elections traditionally seen as an authentic moment of national cohesion and participation in a unified country where citizens are given space to express their demands and needs, have somehow a different connotation. In Sudan cohesion is extremely poor and for a great part of the population covering basic needs is the main preoccupation.
Against this, the neglect of international humanitarian law and human rights where for the first time a head of state has been accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide further blurred the elections´ legitimacy. According to the ICC’s warrant, Bashir, helped by the Arab “janjaweed” militia, ordered a campaign of murder, torture and rape in Sudan’s Darfur region. Therefore, apart from the will to maintain power in one of the biggest oil-producing nations of Africa, elections were crucial for Bashir as a mean to protect himself against the ICC´s accusations as well as an opportunity to try and legitimize his presence as head of state through democratic and legal means.
A flawed electoral process
April’s elections were the first multiparty elections in 24 years and the first to include the largest number of Sudanese voters, where roughly 16.5 million were registered. They were also one of the most complex elections to take place on the continent, with more than a dozen of political parties and about 15,000 individuals running for local, state and national offices, requiring eight separate ballots in the north and 12 in the south. The organization and implementation of the polls are a considerable stepping stone towards democracy and peace considering Sudan suffered Africa’s longest-running war, killing 2 million people and forcing more than 4 million to flee. On 26 April results were finally announced with Bashir remaining president and Salva Kiir still president of the semi autonomous south Sudan with 92% of the votes. Both of them are expected to form once again a national coalition government and agree on issues such as settling the north-south border for the 2011 referendum. Any delay to do so could mean a return to civil war.
Mixed assessments of the Sudanese elections have been given by election observers. While the African Union observers have declared the elections as “free and fair”, Norway, Britain, the United States (the three countries guarantors of the peace deal), the European Union and the Carter Center declared that it was obvious that the elections would fall short of international standards expected of advanced democracies.
According to Jimmy Carter, the complexity of the elections involved two major problems on the ground: voter lists and the location of polling stations. “Voter lists were based on a faulty census and modified by translation back and forth in two languages before final printing and late promulgation (just before the election day). The number of voting sites was reduced to 16,500 from 21,200, which meant an average of 1,000 registered voters was assigned to each site. It was difficult for many voters to find their names on voter lists and to find their polling places.”
In addition to logistical issues, the boycott of the elections on behalf of northern opposition parties demonstrated a clear reaction, within the Sudanese community, against the overall conduct of the electoral process.
Lastly, but not least important, the people of Darfur have been recognized as the big losers of the elections. International Crisis Group mentions in its latest report “manipulating the elections in Darfur”. The EastAfrican newspaper quotes that in the months leading up to the elections “amid voter and opposition boycotts, and as promising peace deals and ceasefires faltered in negotiation in Doha, many skeptics questioned how the region’s beleaguered population, which includes millions of internally displaced persons could participate in a free, fair and peaceful electoral process when none of those qualities describe Darfur itself.”
Even though the elections have been considered relatively peaceful and calm, peacekeepers and aid workers in Darfur have been increasingly targeted and the European Union monitoring team pulled out of the area days before voting started for security reasons. In the south, intimidations and harassments have also been reported.
Considering the complex humanitarian situation in Sudan and the lack of infrastructure and difficult communication throughout the whole territory, miracles weren’t expected. However, it is important to differentiate between purely logistical issues and more embedded factors which could jeopardize the peace building process. The lack of will to find a solution in the ongoing conflict in Darfur where a great majority of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been left out from the polls, the consequences of rigged elections in the north, reported Southern People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) intimidations in the south and the recognition of lack of legitimacy by the international community are all concerning issues that need to be dealt with in the hypothesis of a peaceful secession to occur. The creation of a new state in Africa and its consequences for other countries also dealing with separatist movements needs to be assessed adequately to avoid further conflicts. As fairly mentioned by Jimmy Carter, “it is imperative that the international community remains deeply involved in Sudan, insisting that all elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement be implemented. This is the only hope for a long-suffering and courageous people, including those in Darfur, who have had at least a partial taste of freedom, peace and democracy.”
East African, “The big losers in Sudan´s flawed election are the abused and ignored people of Darfur”, 28 April 2010
International Crisis Group, “Rigged Elections in Darfur and the Consequences of a Probable NCP Victory in Sudan”, 30 March 2010
Jimmy Carter “Sudan’s Imperfect but Important Elections”, 28 April 2010