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Sudan: Hopes raised ahead of landmark elections

By Parselelo Kantai in Juba and James Copnall in Khartoum
Posted on Monday, 22 March 2010 13:54

The southern vote will point the way forward

to secession, while a ruling party victory in the national polls may

weaken international pressure for war crime prosecutions.

It was Juba’s grandest celebration. In the southern Sudanese capital, a convoy of 500 vehicles trailed a marching band with a cacophony of trumpets, tubas and drums which defied the 40-degree heat, as dancers waved the banners from their regions as they passed the cheering crowds. For a moment it looked as if Juba was already celebrating southern Sudan’s expected vote for independence after the referendum due next January.

In fact, the crowds were marking not only the launch in early February of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) campaign in the national elections in April, but also five years of regional government since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the northern government and southern Sudan in 2005.

Sporting a cowboy hat, Salva Kiir Mayardit, SPLM Chairman and President of the Government of Southern Sudan, stood in an open Land Rover heading the noisy procession and languidly waved to the crowds. This was a coronation, not an election rally. Not a compelling orator, he waded through a two-hour-long speech at the John Garang mausoleum: “I would like to reassure all political parties that I will continue with my commitment to establishing an inclusive government that will reflect our diversity and pluralism.”?

He listed the fallen liberation heroes, especially SPLM founder Garang, and reflected on the liberation struggle, the burdens of civilian leadership and plans for the future of southern Sudan. It was a manifesto for an independent southern Sudan.

The SPLM in the south and the National Congress Party (NCP) in the north are confident of victory in their respective regions. The stakes could hardly be higher – for Salva, an election victory this year should precede next year’s referendum on southern secession. For President Omer el Beshir, facing an international arrest warrant for war crimes in Darfur, losing the national election could mean being handed over for trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) at the Hague. Conversely, if President Omer wins, he will claim the ICC opposes the will of Sudanese voters.

Many Sudanese celebrate the coming of elections after the last 20 years of Islamist diktat and multiple civil wars which have killed hundreds of thousands in the south, Darfur and the eastern region. Equally, many fear election disputes could spark fresh conflicts.

President Omer and the NCP have overwhelming advantages in the first real national elections that they will contest. Apart from presiding over an oil-exporting economy, monopoly control of state radio and television, and the assistance of the all-pervasive national security network, Omer has launched a rapprochement with his rival, Chad’s President Idris Déby Itno, and signed a peace deal with one of the two main rebel groups in Darfur, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).

Although the deal was welcomed overseas and the NCP announced “the war is over”, Darfuris are sceptical, not least because the deal was followed by the bombing of areas occupied by other rebel groups. JEM is forming its own political party but wants the elections delayed. Ghazi Salah el Din, presidential advisor on Darfur, insists that “the elections will not be delayed to appease anyone.” ?

The NCP’s forerunner, the National Islamic Front (NIF), was trounced in the 1986 elections, widely judged as credible, which were won by Sadig al Mahdi and the Umma Party. Sadig was just about to sign a peace deal with the south, shortly before its overthrow by the NIF in league with Islamist army officers in 1989. The immediate target of the 1989 coup, Sadig, sees little to celebrate in April’s elections. “This is simply a return to normal. I was not sacked by the people, I was sacked by guns,” he tells The Africa Report.

On the campaign trail in Central Equatoria province with General Alfred Ladu Gore. Read more

The Umma Party is part of the Juba Alliance, a national coalition of opposition parties including the SPLM that promises to unite against Omer and the NCP. The parties calculate that all their separate candidates standing together in a free vote could stop the NCP from getting more than 50% of the votes, forcing a second round. The Juba alliance would then coalesce around the strongest candidate. Sadiq looks to be the most serious challenger to Omer. “Now it is possible for the people to reinstate the person whom they believe represents their interests and aspirations,” he says hopefully.

The NCP is leaving nothing to chance. Omer launched his campaign promising prosperity and modernisation as tens of thousands in the Al Hilal stadium in Omdurman watched a spectacular fireworks display. Rival parties and civic activists accuse the NCP of intimidation. “Lots of people did not register to vote. The NCP attacked us here in Darfur, then the same party came to talk to us about elections,” according to a displaced Darfuri in El Fasher. “That is why we did not register.”?

Complaints are mounting. The SPLM’s candidate for the national presidency, Yasir Arman, accuses the NCP of breaking up its rallies and preparing for massive fraud. “The Elections Commission is supposed to print voting cards outside Sudan but now they are printing them in the government printing press,” adds Yasir. “That is unacceptable and is going to give the NCP a chance to rig the elections.”?

Although an impressive 16 million people registered to vote, oppositionists and election monitors complain of ?serious irregularities, such as multiple registrations, voter intimidation and manipulation of the armed forces’ votes. “The elections are already sown up for Beshir, and it happened during registration,” says an insider in Khartoum.

Omer has a local following in a way that often escapes outside observers. He appears relaxed and jocular when campaigning, often using Sudanese dialect rather than the modern standard ?Arabic favoured by politicians but ?spoken by almost no one else.

The arrest warrant for Omer issued by the ICC is a matter of heated debate. Omer’s former Islamist collaborator Hassan al Turabi was detained last year after he suggested Omer be handed over to the ICC. Many in Darfur share that view but the ruling NCP rails against it. According to Ibrahim Ghandour, the party’s head of political mobilisation, “we felt we were being attacked by the West. If they issue a genocide charge against him before the polls [as is still possible], believe me, I will use it in our campaigning.”?

In the south there is also little doubt about the outcome of the election. The SPLM is better organised, richer and immediately recognisable across the country – it has 3.5 million members in southern Sudan and 1.5 million in the north. But following rows with Khartoum about the census and north-south border demarcation, the electoral timetable slipped and the SPLM decided against organising primaries to nominate its candidates.

“We had to compromise on the selection of candidates,” says SPLM spokesman Simon Peter Apiku. “We then devised a system that was halfway between selection and primaries.” But many southern politicians rejected this system and decided to run regardless. Initially, they were tolerated and called themselves SPLM independents, but the party lost control.

“We had 76 candidates running for governorship in 10 states – that’s seven candidates for every seat,” says SPLM Deputy Secretary-General Ann Itto. “We could not possibly accommodate all of them. We appealed to the revolutionary spirit of the [losing] candidates.” ?

Many candidates saw the nomination as unfair and corrupt. In particular, there will be a rough contest for the governorship of Central Equatoria. The leading contenders are the incumbent, Clement Wani Konga, and Alfred Ladu Gore, Salva Kiir’s former advisor on ?foreign affairs and security.

This competition could cut significantly into the SPLM’s margin of victory but more importantly could damage the prospects for unity in the south. Independents are saying that the SPLM tampered with nominations and are threatening trouble if they find evidence of vote rigging. This is encouraging for the NCP, as it will distract attention from electoral abuses there.

For many in the South, the real vote will be next year. “The SPLM will win, regardless of these problems,” says a Cuban-trained young Sudanese professional over a beer in ‘Havana’, a slick new bar in Juba. “What is important isn’t all this campaigning. It’s the ?referendum. That’s the big prize. After that, we can sort out our domestic ?issues in the way we know.”

This article was first published in The Africa Report April-May 2010 edition.

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