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Khartoum’s Electoral Strategy (or How to ‘Fix’ a Referendum)

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Khartoum’s Electoral Strategy (or How to ‘Fix’ a Referendum)

Posted by Enough Team on September 24, 2010

Khartoum’s Electoral Strategy (or How to 'Fix' a Referendum)

With reprehensible belatedness, the Obama administration has finally awakened to the “ticking time bomb” in Sudan.  Unfortunately, detonation may still occur before or after the scheduled January 9, 2011 self-determination referenda for southern Sudan and Abyei. Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, and even the president’s painfully naïve special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, must now understand that if the referenda are not free, fair, and timely, war looms as the most likely outcome. 

Largely lost amid the welter of issues that define this vast and accelerating crisis are the actual mechanics of the referendum voting, and in particular the requirements for the southern referendum to achieve electoral legitimacy. Ominously in the case of Abyei, the Abyei Referendum Commission still has not been assembled, ensuring that voter registration will be largely unguided and extremely contentious, especially given Khartoum’s “settling” of Misseriya Arabs in the region for the purpose of voting in the referendum. But it is in the details of voting and tabulation in the South that we may see the most potent weapon the Khartoum regime wields in denying legitimacy to the referendum results.  

For not only has registration failed to begin (the stipulated date was July of this year), it is still not fully clear who is eligible to vote and what defines eligibility. The logistics of registration are immensely complex and challenging, and while there are optimistic voices in the South, it is very difficult to see how the effects of Khartoum’s many months, indeed years of stalling on the terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, can be overcome in the time that remains. If Khartoum chooses to abort or refuses to accept the results from the self-determination referendum, there will inevitably be technical shortcomings that may be used as pretext.

But registration is only one problem, and indeed even its resolution may lead to another, more sinister problem. For after difficult negotiations, Khartoum and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, agreed that while the referendum for the South will pass with 50 percent of the vote plus one, the vote will be binding only if 60 percent of the registered voters do in fact vote (revealingly, Khartoum had earlier pushed for a 90 percent threshold). This “quorum” requirement could be extremely difficult to achieve, and failure to meet it may provide Khartoum with the best pretext for refusing to accept what will be an overwhelming vote for secession. It will be far easier to suppress the votes of those who register, especially southerners in the North, than to affect significantly the percentages favoring secession. Here we should bear in mind that even without such suppression, poor communications, and transport in the South make 60 percent a highly ambitious goal; widespread illiteracy and lack of familiarity with voting procedures make the casting of valid ballots even more challenging. 

Democracy Reporting International makes a number of telling observations in a July 2010 report on the referenda, including the fact that quorum requirements have not been part of recent self-determination referenda (e.g., East Timor, Eritrea, Montenegro)—and that when there has been such a quorum it is “commonly set at 50 percent or less” (page 7).  Most tellingly, the DRI report notes that:

“Turnout requirements may actually depress voter participation because, as the Council of Europe notes, ‘it is in the interests of a proposal’s opponents to abstain than vote against it.”

This claim is illustrated by DRI with a scenario in which, out of a total of 10,000,000 registered voters, a total of 5,800,000 votes for a given proposition and only 100,000 vote against—but 4,100,000 don’t participate. Although the vote is overwhelmingly “for” (98.3 percent), the turnout is only 59 percent, and thus does not reach a 60 percent threshold.  Of course there won’t be 10 million registered southern voters; but the logic of this example obtains no matter what the total number of registered voters may be. Even with an overwhelming percentage of actual voters choosing secession, the quorum might not be met, and this gives Khartoum its best opportunity to deny the legitimacy of the referendum. Unsurprisingly, the regime’s embassy in Washington, D.C., emphasized in August, “the impossibility of hitting 60 percent rate of voting necessary for effecting South Sudan secession via the upcoming self-determination referendum.”

And of course the means of voter suppression are everywhere. John Ashworth, in a superb overview of the current standing of CPA implementation, points out not only the difficulties faced by southern Sudanese (as many as 2 million) trying to register in northern Sudan, but how much easier it will be to rig the quorum numbers than the percentage voting for secession:

“Rigging the simple majority would be extremely difficult, as all indications are that a huge majority of voters will choose secession. However, the 60% quorum would be easier to rig. One tactic would be to make it difficult for registered voters to turn out, due to insecurity, transport and other problems. During the elections in April 2010 many voters found it difficult to cast their vote due to incomplete lists, lists being sent to the wrong polling stations, and other bureaucratic and logistical issues. These could conceivably be deliberately exacerbated in the referendum.”

To these difficulties must be added the security threats posed by the Lord’s Resistance Army; there is a good deal of evidence that Khartoum continues to provide logistical and material support to this instrument of civilian terror. The renegade General George Athor of Jonglei state has also been assisted by Khartoum in his efforts to generate insecurity and violence against civilians in the South: a military helicopter from Khartoum, reportedly with several of General’s Athor’s top commanders aboard, was captured on August 8 in Upper Nile State, according to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army.

There is every reason to believe that the threats to civilians traveling to vote—often over long distances—will increase in the run-up to the referendum. The clearly intended purpose is to diminish the number of registered voters who actually vote. So clear has this threat become that in late August, Vice-President of the Government of South Sudan, Riek Machar, urged southerners: “Don’t register if you cannot vote."  On September 12, Michael Makuei Lueth, Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, made the same plea

But it should not fall exclusively to the southern leadership to ensure that registered voters be provided the security to vote, and ensure that those who wish to register are able to do so without fearing that they will be prevented from actually voting.  The U.N. Mission in Sudan, which has proved painfully ineffective in pursuing what is now its most important mandate—“to assist the parties with the planned national referendum in 2011”—has a chance to redeem its many failings by becoming fully engaged in providing security for voters and polling places. International monitors—and not simply from the U.N.—should ensure that voter intimidation plays as small a role as possible. The security and integrity of ballots must be ensured, along with the counting of these ballots. And critically, the registration total must be scrupulously tabulated and protected from Khartoum’s efforts to inflate the number and thus the number of votes required to reach the 60 percent quorum. This is a very tall order in northern Sudan.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has declared a southern vote for secession to be “inevitable,” a view held by virtually all outside of Khartoum. But the regime would have it otherwise.  As the distinguished Sudanese scholar Suliman Baldo of the International Center on Transitional Justice recently noted, there is a concerted media campaign to “promote the fiction that all Sudanese seek national unity—and thus that a vote for independence is intrinsically illegitimate.” This campaign may be part of Khartoum’s strategy to extract as much as possible from the South in negotiations on referendum issues that must be resolved (though this strategy may well be calculated to exclude a legitimate Abyei referendum). But it may also be a signal that Khartoum has no intention of allowing the results of the referendum to stand. If this is the case—and it seems more than likely—the U.S. and its partners, especially Norway and Britain, must work to convince Khartoum that there will be punishing consequences if the referendum is aborted or not recognized, and civil war re-ignites. President Obama can begin to convey this message at the U.N. summit on Sudan this afternoon.


Eric Reeves is a professor of English at Smith College.  He has published extensively on Sudan, nationally and internationally, for more than a decade.  His book on Darfur—A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide—was published in 2007.