Issues emerging on the run-up to the Sudanese elections

There is no doubt that the highlight of next month’s African political agenda are the Sudan elections – which will take place from the 11th to the 13th of April – the first multiparty elections since 1986. The importance of the elections relate not only to the issue of multipartyism, but to how these elections are a fundamental part of the the longer process outlined by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) – signed in 2005 – which requires general elections in 2010 and a referendum on the self-determination of South Sudan in 2011. Thus, and whereas in 2003-05 the main attention was centred on the Darfur conflict, the centre of gravity of Sudanese political processes has shifted back to the North-South division – a line along which two civil wars have erupted – the last one lasting from 1983 to 2005. A shift has signalled also in the change of name of the SSRC blog – the best online forum (in English) for following political debates on Sudan – from «Making Sense of Darfur» to «Making Sense of Sudan».
Tensions have emerged at different stages of the run-up to the elections – from the crack-down of protests in Khartoum last December (blogged here in Spanish), to more recent arrests of youth activists, to the concerns expressed regarding the role of the National Electoral Comission (NEC). Nevertheless, large scale violence and repression appears to have been absent – which given the complexities and tensions of the Sudanese situation is something to cherish. Thus, just three weeks ago, Alex de Waal wrote an insightful an optimistic piece in which he noted that, during the electoral campaign, both the ruling NCP and the main opposition, the SPLM:

«are engaging one another head on, and the externals are largely spectators. That’s a welcome change, and Sudanese politics is healthier as a result. The NCP looks like the dominant party in a dominant party system in northern Sudan. It has more resources, better organization, and better disciplined than the competition. NCP campaign managers are expecting to lose a number of constituencies in their heartland and even some governorships, but their plurality, at least, in the next national assembly seems assured…
In the south, the SPLM is clearly signaling that electoral competition should not be at the cost of internal divisions that would leave southern Sudan vulnerable ahead of the referendum. And the other parties and independents are heeding the call.
Across Sudan, the NCP is running on the basis of pragmatism, nationalism and economic growth, with a little note of apology tacked on for the war and repression.
More unexpectedly, the SPLM and NCP have been negotiating hard on a host of bilateral issues. The imminence of the election has concentrated their minds, and a number of deals have been struck in quick succession…

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Photo: AFP
This optimism was also picked up by other commentators, most notably, Simon Tisdall who wrote on Tuesday 16th March on the Guardian’s «Coment is Free» section that, for the forthcoming elections we will be looking at «An African success story in Sudan». This piece has since generated plenty of comments, and it has been answered twice this week on the same new forum by Julie Flint, who warned that «we should pay more attention to growing Sudanese concern over moves to silence dissent», and Louise Roland-Gosselin who writes that «It’s far too early to celebrate democracy in Sudan».
Both responses are undoubtedly the result of different readings of the events in the country – emphasising the problems and irregularities that have marked the election campaign. But, being written a few days after Tisdall’s, they are also a good indicator of how fast things are changing as the elections approach. Different events during the end of last week and the beginning of this seem to point out that perhaps there is still time for things to precipitate – and turn the elections into a far messier deal. At the end of the piece by Alex de Waal quoted above, he noted with his characteristic insight:

«My personal prediction is that the election will go ahead in April. It might be delayed a few days, but purely for technical reasons such as late delivery of voting slips. The three continuous voting days might also have to be extended, if there are still lines of would-be voters waiting outside polling stations on the evening of day three.»

De Waal hit the nail on its head when he noted the importance of the possible election delay due to logistical concerns. Last Thursday the SSRC Blog posted an entry on the «Reports on the Elections», and two days ago Sahel Blog made a reference to these reports published by different monitoring and advocacy groups, such as the US Carter Centre, the IDP Action and Human Rights Watch. All these reports were critical, with HRW saying that «both the Government of National Unity and the Government of South Sudan are violating rights and restricting freedoms critical to a fair poll, including freedoms of expression and of assembly.” and the Carter Centre noting

«that while much has been achieved in organizing the 2010 elections, the country’s first competitive elections since 1986, the process remains at risk on multiple fronts including the ability of candidates to campaign freely and the impact of delayed logistical preparations by the National Elections Commission (NEC)…
Logistical preparations are straining the limited capacity of the NEC. With a series of delays and changes in polling procedures, a minor delay in polling for operational purposes may be required.»

These critical reports, and their suggestion that polls may have to be delayed have caused an angry response from Sudan’s President Al-Bashir. Thus, on Monday speaking in Port Sudan he said:

“We brought these organizations from outside to monitor the elections, but if they ask for them to be delayed, we will throw them out. We wanted them to see the free and fair elections, but if they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes and throw them out.”

Omar Al-Bashir Photo: AFP
This reaction from Al-Bashir appears to me both an attempt to secure the continuity of the scheduled vote – thus guaranteeing the advantage that the NCP enjoys as the ruling party, which also controls repressive forces (see here how quickly organised elections can benefit the party in charge); and also as an attempt to present any external intervention as contrary to his government, and thus appear as a victim of the US/ICC. This attempt at demagogy and working-up anti-Western feelings (in a Mugabe-like way) was made all the more efficient by the response given yesterday by the ICC prosecutor:

European Union’s observers on the ground are facing «a big challenge», Moreno-Ocampo told a press conference in Brussels. «It’s like monitoring a Hitler election,» he added.

I have the feeling that internal dynamics both within NCP and SPLM camps and between tema are already complicated enough, and create sufficient tensions in the run-up to the election, to further add external variables. These are nevertheless unavoidable – as Alex de Waal notes in his most recent post, on the rumours «that western nations were backtracking on their commitment to self-determination in southern Sudan.» From my limited knowledge of the situation I see the CAP as the firmest guarantee to a peaceful resolution of the Sudanese conflict. The framework has strict deadlines and it is under the pressure stemming from these that, as de Waal argues, «problems are being solved, and scenarios of lawlessness and state failure are fading away». In my opinion the key element is to figure out how strong is the commitment of Al-Bashir (and the NCP) to the CAP and the self-determination referendum. I am in no way qualified to answer this question, but I do believe that at this point external actors should pursue a strategy of delicately nudging the NCP towards complying with the framework set by the CAP, and in the process allowing greater civil and political freedoms. Demonising Al-Bashir – like Moreno-Ocampo does – and allowing him to present himself as a victim-of-the-West will (I believe) just give him arguments to abandon the compromises already made.

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