Sudan: US backs election farce

April 17, 2010

It was hailed as the first "competitive", "open", "multi-party" elections in Sudan in 24 years, but there was little free, fair or open about the national poll that began on April 11 and was boycotted by opposition parties.

Holding of democratic elections was a key part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a two-decade-long civil war between the Sudanese government in Khartoum — ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP) since it took power in a 1989 miliary coup — and the South Sudan People's Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Al Midan said on April 12 that opposition spokesperson Farooq Abu Issa told a media conference at the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) headquarters in Khartoum the elections had become little more than silly games.

He said opposition warnings that elections would be fraudulent had been ignored and described the poll as a "crime against Sudan and its people". He said the involvement of US officials — who defended the legitimacy of the elections — in Sudan's domestic affairs was unacceptable.

SCP representative Siddiq Yusuf said the NCP used its government majority to prevent reforms to democratise the electoral process, instead pushing through harsh security measures.

Umma Party (UP) spokesperson Mariam al Mahdi called for the elections to be annulled.

In September, a conference of more than 20 opposition parties, including the SPLM, the UP and the SCP, met in the southern capital of Juba to outline prerequisites for a fair election. In December, protests demanding electoral reform were attacked by police and many protesters were beaten and detained.

The National Electoral Commission was appointed by the regime. NEC regulations required opposition parties to give 72 hours' notice before holding election rallies in their own offices and to gain police permission for outside events.

Security forces have continued to harass and intimidate government opponents. The banning of people with criminal records from candidacy excluded many former political prisoners.

The NCP used its control of the media and state resources to conduct its campaign, while the opposition faced continued censorship. The government has also been accused of rigging the voter registration process.

Sudanese organisations in Australia requested the NEC establish voting facilities for thousands of Sudanese migrants, but the commission didn't respond. Many Sudanese in Australia fled Sudan as refugees and would have likely voted against the government.

In Darfur, in Sudan's west, ongoing violence and continued emergency rule ensured little prospect for fair elections. The European Union withdrew its election observers from the region due to concerns for their safety.

In the week before the poll, the UP announced it would boycott it at all levels, along with the SCP and the Umma Reform and Renewal Party. The SPLM decided to boycott most of the northern polls, the presidential race and elections in Darfur, but to continue to contest it in the south.

Reports of irregularities flowed from the start. Some booths didn't receive voter lists and registered voters discovered their names weren't included.

There were complaints of the wrong ballot papers being delivered, candidate names missing from ballot papers, and missing or incorrect party symbols or photographs alongside some candidates' names (important in a country with high levels of illiteracy).

There were complaints of booths failing to provide facilities for voter privacy and of booths that didn't open for many hours after polling officially began.

There were reports across Sudan of voters being harassed by police and many arrests of election campaigners. Journalist Al Haj Ali Warrag was reportedly arrested and charged with "waging war against the state" after he wrote an article in the April 6 Ajras al-Huriya criticising the rigged elections and supporting the boycott.

On April 13, in an attempt to appease discontent, the NEC extended polling for a further two days.

Khartoum has also failed to implement other aspects of the CPA. The NCP has retained its monopoly on power and SPLM participation in the central government has been largely limited to token positions. Little in the way of significant reconstruction has taken place in the south.

Disputes over sharing of oil revenue led to violence erupting in Abyei in 2008, where many civilians died and tens of thousands were displaced.

The SPLM has also been widely criticised for its governance of the semi-autonomous south, with allegations of corruption and failure to use oil revenue to substantially improve the lives of the millions of people living in the war-ravished region.

Another key element of the CPA is a referendum on self-determination for South Sudan, which is scheduled to take place in January 2011. There is overwhelming support in the south for separation; but the NCP regime has already sought to manipulate the process.

The SPLM rejected the results of the May 2008 national census as rigged. The census laid the basis for registering voters for the elections and referendum. On March 30, the AFP quoted President Omer Al Bashir as saying: "If the SPLM refuses the elections, we will reject the (2011) referendum".

The NCP and SPLM are also yet to agree on the north-south border, where much of Sudan's oil lies. The NCP has been accused of stirring up ethnic violence to destabilise these areas.

Continued government-backed genocide in Darfur has killed some 300,000 people and displaced at least 3 million. The government has signed a series of ceasefire agreements with most of the key rebel groups, but has largely used its tried and tested tactic of providing token government positions for key leaders while doing nothing to tackle the root causes of the region's conflict.

Al Bashir responded to his indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court for his government's key role in mass murder in Dafur with a publicity campaign presenting himself as a heroic defender of Sudanese sovereignty against Western interference.

The poll is a chance to consolidate Al Bashir's power and legitimise his government. A vote for the NCP in Darfur and the disputed oil-rich areas along the north-south border will be used to claim a mandate to continue control of these regions.

The US government has continued to defend the elections as a step forward for democracy in Sudan. US special envoy Scott Gration, who tried to convince the opposition parties to not boycott, said on April 3 the election would be "as free and fair as possible".

The April 8-14 edition of the Cairo-based Al Ahram Weekly said Al Bashir declared: "Even the Americans are members of the NCP now; no one can defeat us."

Ironically, while Sudan remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, the NCP regime has been an important collaborator in the US "war on terror", sharing the extensive intelligence its security agencies have collected on Islamic and anti-US groups in north Africa and the Middle East.

The Obama administration's October policy announcement on Sudan called for an "orderly path toward two separate and viable states at peace with each other" following the 2011 referendum.

The US is likely hoping the winning of an independent state by the people of southern Sudan will be an opportunity for greater influence in north Africa and a chance to lift bans on US investment in Sudan — opening up significant opportunities for US oil companies.

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