Turtle Bay

Sudan elections put U.N., U.S. in an awkward spot

As Sudan’s key political leaders vowed today to press ahead with the country’s first competitive elections in 24 years, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court reminded the world how politically awkward the April 11-13 vote could prove: Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state the court has charged with ...

As Sudan’s key political leaders vowed today to press ahead with the country’s first competitive elections in 24 years, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court reminded the world how politically awkward the April 11-13 vote could prove: Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the first sitting head of state the court has charged with war crimes, may have his rule legitimized through a U.N.-backed election.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the court’s Argentine prosecutor, described the spectacle of international election observers traveling to Sudan to monitor the vote, and prodded states to focus on arresting Bashir and send him to The Hague to stand trial. "It’s like monitoring a Hitler election," Moreno-Ocampo said, according to Reuters.

The run-up to the landmark national and local elections in Sudan has been marred in recent weeks by reports of a political crackdowns on government opposition figures and logistical problems that raise questions about Sudan’s ability to distribute ballots to eligible voters. Last week, the Carter Center, the Atlanta-based NGO headed by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, proposed the Sudanese National Election Commission approve a "minor" delay in the vote to ensure that polling stations can be set up in remote communities. The commission rejected the request.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement this week accusing Sudanese authorities of detaining activists, breaking up public gatherings, and preventing opposition parties access to the media. In Darfur, election officials and candidates have been prevented by conflict and banditry from reaching potential voters. In the southern Sudan, Human Rights Watch documented several incidents of arbitrary arrest, intimidation and torture of members of political parties opposed to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a former rebel group that is now southern Sudan’s ruling party."Conditions in Sudan are not yet conducive for a free, fair, and credible election," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa Director for Human Rights Watch. "Unless there’s a dramatic improvement in the situation it is unlikely that the Sudanese people will be able to vote freely for leaders of their choice."

Bashir threatened today to expel those foreign election observers calling to delay the elections, a move that reflected the Sudanese leader’s growing exasperation with critics of the April vote. Bashir said the government "will cut off their fingers and put them under our shoes."

Sudan’s election is part of a carefully choreographed political process that has its roots in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the Islamic government’s 22-year civil war with the SPLM. But no one expected that the ruling party’s candidate would be the target of an international arrest warrant.

The accord calls for national and local elections in 2010, to be followed by a 2011 referendum in southern Sudan to decide whether the south will secede from Sudan. Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party, which sees elections as a means to legitimize its rule, opposes any calls for delay. The SPLM also opposes a delay in voting out of concerns that it would lead to a postponement of the independence referendum it favors.

The preparations for an election involving Bashir have placed the United States, which brokered the Sudanese peace accord, congressional leaders, who support the election, and the United Nations, which is helping to organize the vote, in a tough spot.

"Many Sudanese are hopeful that the upcoming elections will lead to the transformation of Sudan into a more inclusive and democratic country," Rep. Donald M. Payne (D-NJ), told Turtle Bay. "Yet, many others question the legitimacy and credibility of an election when an indicted criminal like Bashir running for president."

The United Nations has mounted a public relations campaign aimed at assuring outsiders that even a flawed election in the African country may be worth having. U.N. officials assembled a group of reporters in New York last week to highlight the historic nature of Sudan’s upcoming vote, the country’s first in 24 years, and noted that it enjoys broad Sudanese support. "We shouldn’t look at this as a negative; we should look at this as a positive," said a senior U.N. official.

Ibrahim Gambari, the special representative of the U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, said that while the election may take place in an "imperfect environment" it would alter Sudan’s political landscape for the better.

"The security will be pretty good, if our experience in the registration period was anything to go by," he told the Associated Press after attending an international fundraising conference for Darfur in Cairo.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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