In just a little over one month, Sudan will face its first major elections in 24 years.
They will be held for six levels of government, including the presidency and the national legislature. The presidential election requires an absolute majority vote (50 per cent plus one) in the first round. If none of the candidates receive this majority, there will be a second election: a run-off round. The major presidential candidates include President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir from the controlling party in the north, the National Congress Party (NCP), and Yasir Arman from the south’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Delivering the opening remarks at the political parties summit in southern Sudan, former Burundi President Pierre Buyoya, representing the African Union Panel on Darfur, remarked, “The challenges of building democracy and development from the ashes of war are great indeed.”
A significant political milestone in their own right, the elections are a pivotal step on the road to meeting final implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended the two-decades civil war between the north and the south. The conduct and outcomes of the elections will indicate the future direction of the nation, as it begins a difficult year in the lead-up to the 2011 referendum on southern independence. While many challenges lie ahead — including resolving the status of the oil-rich border regions between the north and south — the elections next month present many of their own concerns.
Violence, displacement, and political marginalization are still a reality for many of Sudan’s citizens, and several ongoing issues threaten the viability of the elections:
It is important to understand the electoral process in context with the overall requirements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. Alongside the 2011 referendum on southern independence, the CPA set up distinct terms for determining the futures of the hotly contested border regions: Abyei, Southern Kordofan, and Southern Blue Nile.
Although Southern Kordofan has been considered part of the north through the transition period since the signing of the CPA, its population was split between supporting the north and south during the war. The fighting was intense and brutal, particularly in the Nuba Mountains. According to the CPA, the core issues that have divided the population, including land rights and self-determination, can be readdressed through “popular consultations” led by state assembly members.
Inhabitants of Abyei will have the right to vote on a separate referendum in 2011 on whether they want to be permanently a part of the north or south.
A prerequisite of the elections, a national census was completed last April after numerous delays. Its conclusions would help determine the distribution of wealth and power, including seats in the National Assembly. Southern Sudanese rejected the findings, arguing that the census substantially undercounted the population of Southerners. The NCP and SPLM have, however, recently reached a deal on the contested census by agreeing to allocate an extra 40 seats to the south in the National Assembly. The deal also apportions two more seats to the border region of Abyei and four to the oil state of Southern Kordofan (includes the Nuba Mountains.)
To resolve SPLM’s specific concerns about Southern Kordofan, the north and south agreed to postpone the region’s state elections until a more thorough census could be conducted. Getting the census — and the subsequent distribution of seats — right in Southern Kordofan is especially important because it is the state assembly members who will lead “popular consultations” on the future of the state.
Tasked with monitoring the elections, the Carter Center has expressed concerns about the political environment in Sudan. Recent incidents that have undermined political rights and fundamental freedoms include arbitrary arrests and detentions and harassment of civil society and political party members. In addition, the Center warned about the government’s security forces restricting legitimate activity related to the exercise of freedom of assembly, association, and speech.
In Darfur, state election committees have been unable to access IDP camps, where a low rate of voter registration indicates the extent to which thousands of displaced persons have been excluded from or boycotted in opposition to participating in the elections. Carter Center observers reported seeing military units, police, and security service agents not only present at registration centers in Darfur, but sometimes actively engaged in voter registration.
Over the past year, villages in South Sudan have been attacked in serious clashes that have targeted women and children. The violence and a corresponding increase in ethnic tension are exacerbated by a noticeable influx of weapons in the region.
Meanwhile, just days after a milestone ceasefire signed between Darfur rebel group Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudanese government, violence erupted in central Darfur. Government forces engaged a faction of the rebel Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM), which had not agreed to the ceasefire. This latest fighting raised the number of displaced around the town Deribat to 100,000. Adding another layer of complexity, JEM has threatened to pull out of its ceasefire if Khartoum negotiates with SLM on a parallel track.
Straining already fragile conditions, violence in both Darfur and South Sudan will likely affect the upcoming elections. The only question is how significantly.
Major presidential candidates include:
Omar Hassan Al-Bashir — National Congress Party
Born in 1944, Bashir orchestrated a military coup in 1989 that overthrew President Sadeq al-Mahdi’s democratically elected government. He assumed control by banning all political parties and cracking down on the press and other independent voices. Shortly after attaining power, Bashir appointed himself chief of state, prime minister, and minister of defense. He intensified the ongoing war with the south, presiding over brutal attacks against civilians, including Bahr al-Ghazal, the Nuba Moutains, and clearances of populations from oil-rich areas.
In 1999, President Bashir consolidated his dictatorial control when he removed his chief threat: once ally and former leader of the National Islamic Front, Hassan al-Turabi, who was then serving as Speaker of the National Assembly. That same year, Bashir declared a state of national emergency, suspended the constitution, and disbanded the National Assembly.
In 2004, Bashir’s government negotiated an end to the two-and-a-half decade civil war between north and south Sudan that killed at least 2 million people, mostly civilians, and displaced more than 4 million people. Around that same time, however, Bashir’s government implemented systematic assaults against civilian targets in Darfur, Sudan’s western province where hundreds of thousands have died and millions have lost their homes since 2003.
On March 4, 2009, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant charging Bashir with five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his leadership role in orchestrating the conflict in Darfur. This decision marks the first time the ICC has issued an arrest warrant for a sitting head of state.
Yasir Arman — Sudan People’s Liberation Movement
A northern Muslim who joined the SPLM 24 years ago, Arman is a senior figure in the party. He serves as Deputy Secretary General for Northern Sudan and the head of the SPLM bloc in the National Assembly.
The SPLM decided to nominate Arman instead of Salva Kiir, the party leader and current president of southern Sudan. Kiir intends to seek re-election to the post of southern president, a vital position to occupy as the region prepares for the 2011 referendum on southern independence.
Sadeq Al-Mahdi — Umma Party
Oxford educated, Mahdi is a spiritual leader and head of the Umma Party. He was elected prime minister of Sudan in 1966 and again in 1986. In 1989, his government was toppled in a bloodless military coup by officers including the current President Bashir. Mahdi was imprisoned until early 1991. Although Mahdi’s party was the largest in Sudan in 1986, it has since split into factions, although it continues to enjoy mass support in Darfur.
Mahdi is Imam of the Isalmic Ansar, a Sufi sect with allegiance to Muhammad Ahmad, the self-proclaimed messianic savor (the Mahdi), who famously fought the British General Gordon in the 19th century.
Abdallah Deng Nhial — Popular Congress Party
Nhial is the only southern candidate in the presidential race. A south Sudanese Muslim, Nhial was part of Bashir’s government before Hassan al-Turabi lost his leadership battle with Bashir and split to form his own opposition Popular Congress Party.
Nhial is Dinka, the largest southern Sudanese tribe, and is from a multi-faith family that includes Christians, Muslims, and followers of traditional religions.
Hatim Al-Sir — Democratic Unionist Party
Sir represents the Democratic Unionist Party, a sectarian party that formed a coalition government with Mahdi in Sudan’s last democratic elections in 1986. Sir is a distant relative of the powerful al-Merghani family, which commands the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party, although the party has split many times. Sir left Sudan in 1989 to follow the party’s religious leader into exile, and he only returned in 2009.