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Stealing an Election In Slow Motion: Time for Real Consequences

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Stealing an Election In Slow Motion: Time for Real Consequences

Posted by John Prendergast on December 21, 2009

Stealing an Election In Slow Motion: Time for Real Consequences

Enough Co-founder John Prendergast explores the many challenges facing the 2010 Sudan election season.


Sudan’s national elections scheduled for April 2010 will be neither free nor fair absent significant international pressure on the ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, to dramatically change the electoral landscape. The crackdown by the NCP on December 7 and 14 2009, involving the arrests of senior opposition politicians and the use of tear-gas on protestors, is yet another demonstration that the basic requirements of credible elections, including freedom of expression and assembly, have yet to be met. Despite recent progress over key components of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, little has been done to change the electoral environment, and many of the national-level reforms included in the CPA have been ignored by the NCP with little outcry from the international community.



Explore our interactive timeline of the elections in Sudan.


In the wake of this crackdown, and in the face of what the Obama administration calls “ongoing genocide,” the United States has yet to impose genuine consequences on NCP officials and others who are obstructing peace in Sudan. If nothing changes before April, U.S. taxpayers will have spent nearly $100 million to support the election of an indicted war-criminal and legitimize the iron-fisted rule of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

The current efforts of the United States and the broader international community to end the atrocities in Darfur and prevent all-out war in Sudan are failing. Despite clear signs that the CPA is in jeopardy and continued atrocities against civilians in Darfur and southern Sudan, the Obama administration has yet to impose consequences on those behind the violence.

  • No consequences for commission or orchestration of crimes against humanity.
  • No consequences for the brutalization of political opposition and silencing of independent voices.
  • No consequences for the failure to establish conditions for a free and fair national election.
  • No consequences for the non-implementation of existing agreements, including the CPA.

A stolen election would be the beginning of the CPA’s end, as the NCP would almost certainly exploit what it would quickly claim was newfound “democratic legitimacy” to prevent southern Sudanese from holding the self-determination referendum scheduled for 2011. If that happens, it would be fanciful to think that anything short of full-scale national war would result. In this context, it is time to alter course in bold and specific ways in order to avert what could be the deadliest conflagration in Sudan’s war-torn post-colonial history.



Police officer in southern Sudan

The deputy police commissioner of Duk Padiet, left, and a police describe an attack on their village. (Photo / Maggie Fick)



Credible elections in Sudan? Not even close
The April 2010 national elections are a central pillar of the CPA, the peace deal that ended the North-South war. But in order for elections to truly achieve the democratic transformation that was intended in the CPA, conditions for holding credible elections must be in place. These conditions include a new security law to reduce the government’s broad powers of arbitrary arrest and detention, an independent electoral commission, clear steps to allow independent media coverage, and unrestricted access for international observation teams. Not one of these preconditions has been met to date. These are the basic freedoms that must be in place for any election to meaningfully reflect the will of the people and for opposition politics to have a chance of challenging the status quo. If they are not there, elections can further inflame the crisis, rather than ameliorate it, and to date the international community has been overwhelmingly focused on technical support for the elections without recognizing that the underlying conditions for a free and fair election are not in place. 
Until the NCP agrees to conditions that will allow for credible elections, the United States and other donors should suspend all electoral assistance. Un-free and unfair elections should not be financed and legitimized by American taxpayers. If the Sudanese parties decide to continue with elections without the establishment of these basic standards, the U.S. and the broader international community should not certify its outcome as a credible one. 
However, efforts to put in place the conditions for the January 2011 referendum should continue. Not holding the referendum on time is the most certain trigger for all-out war.
The risks of ignoring electoral prerequisites and holding non-credible elections are enormous, with consequences ranging from the humanitarian to the political. Non-credible elections will:
  • Fuel violence and divisions, particularly in the South and Darfur;
  • Undermine the CPA’s aim of democratically transforming the country;
  • Disenfranchise millions of Darfuris;
  • Provide false legitimacy to an indicted war criminal, Omer al-Bashir, and to his ruling NCP;
  • Badly discredit international electoral assistance programs;
  • Reinforce to the NCP that it can ignore key provisions of the CPA such as national political reforms; and,
  • Waste nearly a hundred million dollars of American taxpayers’ money.
Darfur is particularly vulnerable to flawed elections at this time. Rampant insecurity and attacks on civilians, the absence of a credible peace process, a disputed census, and the displacement of the majority of Darfur’s population are key obstacles to holding truly democratic elections. The displacement of Darfur’s population alone could conceivably lead to myriad problems. Many displaced Darfuris lack proper identification papers or cards, which not only complicates the voting and registration process but also creates ripe opportunities for electoral rigging. Elections in Darfur could formalize displacement; i.e., by registering Darfuris to vote in displaced camps, the NCP may well argue that the individuals who registered in camps have forsaken their legal claims to the lands from which they were driven. The NCP has also routinely encouraged the immigration of non-Darfuris into areas cleared out by the violence, raising questions of whether an election would truly be representative of the region’s people. Elections on these terms will only create new opportunities for the NCP to further exploit the population and hand the ruling party an easy, illegitimate victory. In short, it is almost impossible to imagine a fair election in Darfur in four months, and any national election that does not include Darfur will sorely lack legitimacy.
In the South, piecemeal and ad hoc attempts by the international community and the southern government to address significant security concerns related to the elections are a cause for concern even if the NCP does agree to pre-election reforms. If the elections occur in the current climate, where legitimate elections are impossible, they will fan the flames of simmering inter-communal and political tensions in the South. Elections in the South represent risks that will be all the more threatening if reforms by the NCP do not occur now.
The urgent need for consequences
The U.S. and other donors to the electoral process need to stand up and conclude that the Emperor is as naked as he ever was, and blow the whistle now on this deadly charade.
To be clear, we are not calling for a postponement of the elections, per se, but rather for the creation of conditions for free and fair elections as envisioned in the CPA. The CPA was built upon a clear sequence: national reforms first, to be followed by nation-wide elections and a referendum. If the international community does not condition its continued financial and logistical assistance on substantial reform of the electoral environment, the results will be predictably unfortunate.  If the international community lets the NCP gloss over the provisions that would allow for fair elections, without consequences, this will demonstrate once again the lack of international will to enforce crucial CPA components, and will signal to the NCP that it can wriggle out of additional CPA requirements, thus further imperiling the fragile peace in the South. We are calling for full implementation of the CPA. Rushing toward elections without the proper conditions in place will end badly for all involved, and further embolden the NCP to undermine the next major CPA process: the referendum.
Un-free and unfair elections in Sudan and its potentially violent aftermath will continue to undermine efforts toward democratic reforms throughout Africa as a continent. With several countries — including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Chad — holding elections next year and all undermining the underpinnings of democracy in varying degrees, the conduct of credible elections in Sudan is pivotal to countering this negative regional trend.   The U.S. rarely pulls the plug on its support for an electoral process, no matter how non-credible it is. Doing so in Sudan would set a positive precedent that the substance of democratic transitions matter to the United States.
There is a reason Sudan is facing this make-or-break scenario. Until now, the parties – particularly the NCP – continue to trample the agreement because there has been no cost for not implementing key parts of the CPA. It is time for President Obama to implement his administration’s own benchmark-based policy. Flouting the establishment of conditions for a credible election and referendum should trigger immediate consequences. The U.S. should work within and outside the U.N. Security Council to develop a coalition of countries willing to impose consequences on the NCP for its obstruction of basic conditions for peace. Consequences should include ratcheting up targeted multilateral sanctions, enforcement of the arms embargo, denial of debt relief, and greater support for further International Criminal Court investigations and indictments. Similar consequences should await senior SPLM officials and Darfur rebel leaders if they are found to be undermining peace as well.
These consequences that allegedly reside in the Obama administration’s confidential annex to its policy are the only instruments that can prevent an all-out national war in Sudan. Consequences, or the meaningful threat thereof, have altered the calculations and behavior of the NCP in the past. They led to the expulsion of Osama bin Laden, the end to slave raiding and aerial bombing in the South, the acceleration of intelligence cooperation after 9/11, and the CPA itself. 
There is a path to peace for the parties in Sudan. The United States has a major role to play. But to contribute to peace, the U.S. needs to stand for peace with principle, and back principle with real leverage in the form of credible multilateral consequences in support of genuine democratic processes and verifiable commitment to peace. The first step surely is to suspend U.S. taxpayer support for the unacceptably flawed electoral process, signaling the beginning of a strategy in which fundamental human rights and civil rights violations have real and escalating costs.