Posted by: sean | April 11, 2010

Sudanese elections

The run-up to today’s elections in Sudan has been garnering some attention lately, and while I haven’t been writing about Sudan lately, I have been doing my best to pay attention.

To summarize the situation in broad strokes, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South called for a national census followed by free elections and then a referendum on whether the South would secede. The census happened in 2008, but there were widespread reports of Khartoum’s manipulating the results, undercounting ethnic groups seen as opponents of the regime, particularly in Darfur. It should also be noted that many Darfuris refused to take part, since they were afraid (not unreasonably) that the information would be used by Khartoum to crack down on them, with at least one Darfuri rebel group (JEM) allegedly threatening people for taking  part.

As for the elections, as Alex Thurston notes, many of the opposition parties have decided to boycott either the entire process, or the national level of the elections. The other night, Amanpour had on Jendayi Frazer, assistant secretary of state for African affairs under President George W. Bush, who while bringing up al-Bashir’s duplicity, was stressing that the southern SPLM should contest the national elections. The SPLM representative, Ezekiel Lol Gatkuoth, remained steadfast in the south’s decision to boycott the national elections and focus on the referendum, scheduled for January 2011.

For the Obama administration, it seems like Washington has been pressing for the elections to continue on schedule with full participation, despite the boycott and widespread accusations of electoral rigging. Greg Carlstrom over at the Majlis and the Sudan Democracy First group over at Making Sense of Darfur are wondering why US policy seems to be supporting Khartoum, which is desperately searching to legitimize the rule of al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the ICC on crimes against humanity.

While unsavory, it’s unclear to me what the alternative to this policy is. At the end of the day, Washington is limited to either supporting the elections or denouncing them. In either case, al-Bashir will remain president.

In the first case, if the elections were postponed (yet again), then it’s difficult to see how Khartoum would support the southern referendum happening on time (or at all), since the CPA is pretty clear that free national elections should precede a referendum on independence for the south. There is a lot of disagreement on this point, and perhaps the referendum could take place without elections, although it’s likely that Khartoum would use the lack of elections as a reason to postpone the referendum, indefinitely if posisble.

Otherwise, if the elections go forward and al-Bashir gets the legitimacy he’s craving (even if it’s a limited legitimacy due to the boycott), there is a fair chance that he won’t be able to block the referendum. Last month, Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa, told me that while he thinks there is an even chance southerners will vote to remain part of Sudan (an opinion that seems naively sanguine to me), the Arab League would accept Juba’s secession. I think the result in the AU would be similar, and Washington’s position on this is also clear. Of course, this assumes the referendum will actually take place, but Khartoum is adept at stalling, and a lack of contested elections might just be a tool to that  end.

From the southern point of view, the question boils down to whether a legitimized and newly re-elected al-Bashir would be more likely to try to stop the referendum than a delegitimized al-Bashir whose re-election either didn’t happen or was deemed unfree and unfair. Neither case seems very appealing, but  the SPLM seems to have decided to go for broke: boycotting the elections and pressing ahead for the referendum. We’ll see how the wager turns out for them, but it’s disheartening that no one seems to think that a fair, hard-fought presidential electoral campaign is an option since al-Bashir has too much riding on his staying in power and has illustrated that he’s willing to rig the elections to do so.

So we’re left in a position where it seems like Washington is hoping for a quid pro quo in which the SPLM legitimizes al-Bashir’s re-election in exchange for not obstructing next year’s independence referendum. The SPLM is deciding to force the issue, and it’s unclear if they’re overplaying their hand here. What is clear, though, is that the losers in this whole affair are the peripheral communities of northern Sudan (Darfur, Kordofan and Nuba, for example) who were left out of the CPA in the first place. The South is understandably not too interested in the national elections of a country they plan on seceding from in 9 months, but Darfuris don’t really have the luxury of disregarding the northern political situation.


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