Two months since South Sudan’s overwhelming vote for secession, a debate has heated up over the type of political arrangements that will govern the soon-to-be new state. The conversation—largely between the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, or SPLM, and opposition parties and civil society—has centered around who and what will govern the South during its transitional phase, which lasts from independence on July 9 until new elections are held.
Specifically, opposition parties and civil society have been critical of the composition of a constitutional review committee that the SPLM established in January. The committee is at minimum a technical body charged with amending South Sudan’s current constitution to reflect the region’s pending statehood (i.e. crossing out references to national institutions), but it could also have considerable say in more political questions, such as how much power should be shared by the ruling party with other political parties during the transition.
In January, the South Sudan President Salva Kiir appointed almost exclusively government officials to the committee, in a move that was perceived by many opposition leaders and civil society as an attempt to exclude non-SPLM opinions in the transitional process. The SPLM explained that members were selected on the basis of legal and constitutional knowledge—many of the appointees were previously involved in the drafting of the constitution that has governed the South since 2005—among other arguments. In response to these objections, the SPLM agreed to an additional 12 seats for opposition and civil society representatives. The gesture of inclusivity though, was undone by the party’s decision to add 17 other SPLM members to the committee, ensuring that non-SPLM voices were reduced to a small minority.
The Carter Center described the injection of members as a move to “ensure SPLM dominance over all decisions and to inhibit meaningful participation from opposition members (…).” (The statement also includes a useful backgrounder on the transitional process so far.) More recently, eight opposition parties announced their decision to withdraw from the constitutional review process, in part, representatives claim, because decisions were made on the basis of a majority, rather than consensus, vote within the committee. They wrote:
The SPLM has clearly shown that it is not committed to democracy, good governance, and the rule of law. As such, and to avoid rubber stamping only SPLM dictates, we the other Political Parties have decided to pull out from the constitutional review committee.
Much of the outrage from opposition and civil society appear rooted in the sense that the southern ruling party has done an about-face since October, when the SPLM along with 20 other parties and civil society organizations publicly pledged their solidarity and commitment to inclusivity in the path forward. The conference represented a sharp, and hopeful, departure from prior relations between the SPLM and opposition parties, and in particular the SPLM’s behavior in the April elections, during which SPLM-backed abuses against opposition members and candidates were widely reported.
It is not yet clear to what extent decisions made by the ruling party in the last month are the beginnings of a slippery slope back to last year’s election crackdown or an indication that the ruling party is not actually genuine about political reform. Some experts emphasize that the ruling party is working under significant time constraints in order to have a transitional plan in place by July and that, had the rationale behind the SPLM’s appointments been better communicated, the opposition response may not have been quite so severe.
Whatever the intent, it appears that some of the trust gained in October between the SPLM, opposition parties, and civil society has been lost, and the international community should remain watchful. The coming months will demonstrate just how committed the South’s ruling party is to a transparent and consultative process to usher in what President Kiir deemed the world’s “newest democracy.”