Sudan’s elections raise fears of violence and instability

  From April 11th to 13th, the Sudanese people will vote for state, regional, and national assembly members, state governors, president of the semi-autonomous Southern region, and national president. The national presidential contest initially pitted President Omar al-Bashir and the primarily Northern, Muslim, and Arab National Congress Party (NCP) against eleven challengers, including a formidable ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

 

From April 11th to 13th, the Sudanese people will vote for state, regional, and national assembly members, state governors, president of the semi-autonomous Southern region, and national president. The national presidential contest initially pitted President Omar al-Bashir and the primarily Northern, Muslim, and Arab National Congress Party (NCP) against eleven challengers, including a formidable candidate representing the mostly non-Muslim, non-Arab Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) of Southern Sudan. But campaigning is taking unpredictable turns. Last week, prominent opposition candidates left the race in protest over conditions in Darfur and reports of vote-rigging. Nevertheless, the election will apparently proceed, and its outcome will affect the South's bid for independence, Bashir's fate in both the court of public opinion and the International Criminal Court (ICC), the violence in Darfur, and the prestige of the United States in Africa.

Sudan's last multi-party parliamentary elections took place in 1986, three years before Bashir took power in a military coup. Bashir won the most recent presidential election in 2000, but it was viewed as deeply flawed because of opposition boycotts and accusations that Bashir's margin of more than 85 percent of the vote was fraudulent. This year's election and a January, 2011 referendum on Southern independence are two major provisions of the U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which attempted to end decades of fighting between Northern and Southern Sudan. The legacy of fraud and the boycott by most of the significant opposition parties now raises doubts about not only this election but also the coming referendum. 

 

From April 11th to 13th, the Sudanese people will vote for state, regional, and national assembly members, state governors, president of the semi-autonomous Southern region, and national president. The national presidential contest initially pitted President Omar al-Bashir and the primarily Northern, Muslim, and Arab National Congress Party (NCP) against eleven challengers, including a formidable candidate representing the mostly non-Muslim, non-Arab Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) of Southern Sudan. But campaigning is taking unpredictable turns. Last week, prominent opposition candidates left the race in protest over conditions in Darfur and reports of vote-rigging. Nevertheless, the election will apparently proceed, and its outcome will affect the South’s bid for independence, Bashir’s fate in both the court of public opinion and the International Criminal Court (ICC), the violence in Darfur, and the prestige of the United States in Africa.

Sudan’s last multi-party parliamentary elections took place in 1986, three years before Bashir took power in a military coup. Bashir won the most recent presidential election in 2000, but it was viewed as deeply flawed because of opposition boycotts and accusations that Bashir’s margin of more than 85 percent of the vote was fraudulent. This year’s election and a January, 2011 referendum on Southern independence are two major provisions of the U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, which attempted to end decades of fighting between Northern and Southern Sudan. The legacy of fraud and the boycott by most of the significant opposition parties now raises doubts about not only this election but also the coming referendum. 

The vote count, scheduled for release around April 18th, will provide the Sudanese one puzzle piece as they fit together their political future, but will not make everything clear. With the opposition boycotting, most observers predict a victory for Bashir. The results will not accurately reflect the desires of the electorate, particularly voters in Darfur and Southern Sudan, but details matter. Will Bashir win in the first round of voting, allowing him to avoid a risky runoff? Would an NCP victory produce opposition arrests, street protests, and state violence of the kind seen in the run-up to the elections? How will the South react to the results? And what kind of mandate will the victor claim?

The NCP says the opposition boycott proves the latter’s weakness and hypocrisy, indicating that Bashir will cite even a flawed result as proof of his domestic legitimacy and use this to strengthen his standing with other heads of state. That could hurt the ICC’s chances of bringing him to trial over alleged war crimes in the Darfur region. Even more worrying, Bashir has threatened to cancel the 2011 referendum in anger over the SPLM boycott. Many fear he will also use the boycott as a reason to clamp down harder on internal dissent.

As the dust settles from the election, attention will turn to the southern referendum. Throughout 2009, ethnic clashes in the South alarmed aid agencies and international organizations, who feared local violence could lead to a renewal of the civil war. Some observers accused the North of fomenting the violence, while others believe that the SPLM has sought to minimize the potential for conflict with the North by declining to aggressively contest the presidential race. Rob Crilly has speculated that the SPLM’s withdrawal from this month’s election was actually part of a bargain to give Bashir the presidency in exchange for Southern independence.

But even if the SPLM has reached an agreement with the NCP, spoken or unspoken, it does not completely control the South. The distribution of oil resources, a contested issue between North and South, has also caused problems within the South, where the SPLM faces accusations of corruption from its own constituents. The SPLM’s withdrawal from the presidential election did not halt its campaigning for offices in the South. That means elections in the South will offer a preview of what the internal politics of an independent Southern Sudan might look like. Schisms are growing within the SPLM; in some Southern states, former SPLM supporters are running as independents. If the elections turn ugly, violence and repression in the South could trigger conflicts that the SPLM cannot manage. Tensions in oil states on the border between North and South are running particularly high.

As North and South Sudan move warily toward election week, violence, suffering, and political stalemate continue in Darfur. The International Crisis Group accuses the NCP of vote-rigging there. An NCP victory in Darfur, they continue, would have "catastrophic" consequences for the region, further disenfranchising its people and frustrating rebels, potentially fueling more fighting. In recent months, the government negotiated cease-fires with major rebel groups. But as talks falter and pathways to electoral change appear blocked, cease-fires are already threatening to break down. If the election gives the NCP a big win, and if Southern secession gives the NCP even greater control over Darfur, prospects for peace there could become quite bleak.

The stakes of this election are therefore high, and the mounting problems raise questions about whether U.S. policies toward Sudan are working — and even what that policy actually is. The Obama administration’s envoy, Scott Gration, was criticized throughout 2009 for his approach. After the opposition pulled out, Gration tried energetically to resolve the disagreements between the NCP and its foes. But this effort has not succeeded. Gration‘s confidence "that the elections…[will] be as free and as fair as possible" is misplaced. 

Core assumptions of American policy toward Sudan — both the Bush administration’s conviction that elections would help solve Sudan’s problems, and the Obama administration’s hope that a policy of "carrots and sticks," relying heavily on Gration’s personal efforts, would ensure a smooth ride for the CPA — have proven untenable. Flawed elections in Sudan will be a blow to Washington. But the question now is what the current administration can do to ensure fairness and minimize violence in the 2011 referendum, which still represents a chance for lasting peace between North and South Sudan.

Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University. He writes on Islam and politics in Africa at Sahel Blog.

Alex Thurston is a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University with a focus on Islam in Africa. He blogs at Sahel Blog.

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