Less than two weeks from now, barring any last-minute change-ups, Sudanese will go to the polls for the first time since 1986. For many, it will be the first vote they have ever cast.
But plenty of hints of potential late-breaking curveballs were brewing this week, most notably the breaking news today that the South’s ruling party, the SPLM, would withdraw its candidate for president, Yasir Arman. As the deadline has long passed for nominating candidates, the SPLM now will not have a representative competing against incumbent President Omar al-Bashir. In announcing SPLM’s decision to withdraw its candidate, Government of Southern Sudan Vice President Riek Machar also announced that the SPLM would boycott the elections in Darfur.
This news and other recent developments will likely keep us all guessing about whether the election will take place up until the moment the voting begins on April 11.
Opposition groups have long threatened to boycott the elections if the National Congress Party-led government didn’t do more to ensure that the political and security environment enabled a free and fair process, and these groups renewed their calls today. Among their long list of complaints, opposition groups are protesting the state control of the media, alleged bias in the National Electoral Commission, and discrepancies in census numbers used to draw up plans for the polls and allocate seats in Parliament. The International Crisis Group yesterday elaborated on these allegations in a report titled, “Rigged Elections in Darfur and the Consequences of a Probable NCP Victory in Sudan.”
The SPLM joined other opposition groups in voicing concern about the revelation that the Sudanese government used an affiliated firm in Khartoum to print ballots, rather than following the U.N.’s recommendation that a South African firm complete the task. The same firm was also given the contract to print voter registration packets and forms, decisions which opposition groups say smell of fraud, corruption, or both, and opens the door for the government to manipulate the forms.
Members of the SPLM sent mixed messages this week about whether they are onboard with opposition groups’ threat to boycott, with SPLM Secretary General Pagan Amum declaring yesterday that the SPLM would join northern opposition groups if they decide to boycott “in defense of free and fair elections.” The same day, Pagan’s deputy, Anne Itto, said that the SPLM was “ready” for the elections and warned that a postponement could endanger the referendum on southern independence next year.
The news of a potential SPLM boycott provoked a quick response from Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who warned that “if the SPLM boycott the elections, we will reject the referendum.” As a paper published today by Enough suggests, the SPLM and the NCP are likely pragmatic enough in their deal making to not jeopardize this process with such brash actions, but Bashir’s remark certainly highlights the fragility of the situation.
During a press conference today in the southern capital of Juba, the Vice President of the Government of Southern Sudan, Riek Machar sought to tamp down on discussion of a boycott the elections, as Enough’s Maggie Fick in Juba reported:
“I want to assure you that the elections are on. There has been debate lately… sometimes the SPLM has been misquoted…we are committed to elections as scheduled by the NEC. We want to assure you that the process is on.”
Despite this adamant statement by the South’s VP, competing interests within the SPLM could still prove divisive in the final days before the polls, particularly if critics accuse the SPLM selling out to the NCP by going ahead with the vote.
One more variable that cropped up today involves the leader of JEM, the most militarily powerful Darfur rebel group. Since February, JEM and the Sudanese government have pursued peace talks – with little to no tangible effect on the ground in Darfur – but JEM leader Khalil Ibrahim sought to use the negotiations as leverage for calling for the elections to be postponed. "These elections are based mainly on false senses, especially in Darfur. Masses of populations … will be excluded from the elections," Khalil said. He called instead for the peace process to be accelerated, but the Sudanese government has made it clear that they plan to shift attention squarely on the election, laying out April 5 as the deadline for finalizing a peace deal.
The scene is being set for the NCP to run unchallenged at the presidential level across the country and at all levels in Darfur and South Kordofan. As political dealings continue at the highest level in Sudan, the Obama administration should be carefully considering how it will choose to characterize the current process in Sudan following the polls, and it should calibrate its messaging with other influential outside players.
Photo: As of today, former SPLM candidate for president, Yasir Arman (AP)