As in the rest of Sudan, voting in the national elections began this past Sunday in the country’s volatile western region of Darfur. In addition to irregularities caused by logistical and technical problems, the likes of which have been seen all over Sudan in the past couple of days, reports have now emerged from Darfur of more nefarious, politically-driven machinations to ensure an National Congress Party win for the region—all this, as civilians suffer from continued fighting on the ground.
It’s worth remembering that the NCP and the supposedly independent National Elections Commission, or NEC, have been using various means to ensure an NCP victory in Darfur since the start of elections preparations in 2008—long before polls opened. According to the International Crisis Group, the ruling party has engaged in the manipulation of voter registration and the census, as well as gerrymandering and changes to the electoral laws, just to name a few. This process has already disenfranchised a huge number of Darfuris, and most notably, the vast majority of the internally displaced.
Now it would appear that the NCP has launched a campaign in Darfur to intimidate and coerce the few remaining Darfuris to vote for the ruling party. Enough has received reports of a large military presence around Darfur that has served to intimidate many voters from going to the polls in the first place. Additionally, rumors of a scam in northern Darfur, aimed at getting internally displaced Darfuris to either give up specific financial claims or vote NCP, have surfaced and were mentioned by both Al Jazeera and Radio Dabanga. Isolated incidents of rigging have also emerged, with Radio Dabanga reporting yesterday that the head of a polling center in West Darfur was casting NCP votes for people who could not read the ballot, without notifying observers.
Meanwhile, a government offensive launched in early February against the rebel stronghold of Jebel Marra continues to wreak havoc on the civilian population as elections distract the international community’s gaze. A U.N. report issued yesterday noted that not only is “heavy fighting” ongoing, but that neither peacekeepers nor humanitarian groups have been able to access the affected areas in over two months. In such an environment of insecurity, where the international community has no eyes on the ground, the idea of holding elections that can represent the will of the people seems far-fetched.
The election irregularities reported in Darfur only serve to reiterate the improbability of having credible, let alone free and fair elections, given the security and political situations on the ground. The international community is playing dangerously into the hands of the ruling regime by allowing the elections to distract from an urgent humanitarian situation. The incongruity of saying ‘yes’ to elections held by a regime that continues to indiscriminately attack its own civilians cannot be lost. Given this situation in Darfur, our leaders, such as the much beloved former President Carter, should think twice before declaring: "What we have seen so far has been encouraging."