Sudan: US backs election farce

An election rally in Juba, South Sudan. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army has withdrawn from the election in the north, but is standing in the south.

By Kerryn Williams

April 15, 2010 -- Hailed as the first “competitive”, “open”, “multi-party” elections in Sudan in 24 years, there was little free, fair or open about the national poll that began on April 11, boycotted by the major opposition parties.

The holding of democratic elections was a key component of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended a two-decade civil war between the Sudanese government in Khartoum — ruled by the National Congress Party (NCP, formerly the National Islamic Front) since it took power in a 1989 military coup — and the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Al Midan reported that on April 12, opposition spokesperson Farooq Abu Issa told a media conference at the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) headquarters in Khartoum that the elections had become little more than “silly games”. He said opposition warnings that the elections would be fraudulent had been ignored and described the poll as a “crime against Sudan and its people” that would not help establish democracy. He said the involvement of US officials — who have defended the legitimacy of the elections — in Sudan’s domestic affairs was unacceptable.

Sudanese Communist Party representative Siddiq Yusuf said the NCP had used its majority in the government to prevent reforms to democratise the electoral process, instead pushing through its harsh security measures and other undemocratic legislation. Umma Party spokesperson Mariam al Mahdi called for the elections to be annulled.

Opposition boycott

Last September, a conference of more than 20 opposition parties, including the SPLM, the Umma Party and the Sudanese Communist Party, met in the southern capital of Juba to outline prerequisites for a genuine election. In December, protests demanding electoral reform were attacked by police and many protesters were beaten and detained. SPLM secretary general Pagan Amum and Yassir Arman, SPLM presidential candidate before the party decided to boycott, were among those arrested.

The National Electoral Commission, mandated to oversee the elections, was appointed by the regime. In addition to NEC regulations requiring opposition parties to give 72 hours’ notice before holding election rallies in their own offices and to gain police permission for outside events, the security forces have continued to harass and intimidate those opposed to the government. The banning of people with criminal records from candidacy excluded many former political prisoners.

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

Sudanese organisations in Australia requested that the NEC establish voting facilities for the thousands of Sudanese migrants now living here, but the commission didn’t respond. Many Sudanese in Australia fled Sudan as refugees and would likely vote against the government.

In Darfur, ongoing violence and continued emergency rule on top of the massive displacement that has taken place ensured little prospect for genuine elections. The European Union withdrew its election observers from the region due to concerns for their safety and in the midst of the elections four UN peacekeepers went missing.

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

Reports of irregularities flowed from the minute the vote began. Some booths didn’t receive voter lists and elsewhere registered voters discovered their names weren’t on the list. 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 where there is substantial illiteracy). The ballot papers were printed on government-own presses.

There were also complaints of booths failing to provide facilities for voting in privacy and booths that didn’t open until many hours after polling officially begun.

In addition to these “technical” errors, there were reports across Sudan of voters being harassed by police and numerous arrests of election campaigners. Journalist Al Haj Ali Warrag was reportedly arrested and charged with “waging war against the state” after an article he wrote criticising the rigged elections and supporting the boycott appeared in the April 6 Ajras al-Huriya.

Accusations of voter intimidation have also been levelled in the SPLM-controlled south.

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

The sham elections follow the failure of Khartoum 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.

A recent survey by aid organisations Medair and Save the Children found that 46% of children in Akobo, in south-eastern Sudan, are malnourished, prompting UN official Lise Grande to describe it as the “hungriest place on Earth”.

Southern Sudan and Darfur

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; however the NCP regime has already sought to manipulate the process. The SPLM rejected results of the May 2008 national census, which laid the basis for registering voters for the elections and referendum, as rigged. In January the SPLM accused the NCP of attempting to derail the referendum after President Omar Al Bashir had refused to sign the South Sudan Referendum Act passed in December by parliament. On March 30, the AFP quoted the president 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. “We suspect with some evidence that our partners in the north are still training, arming and sending to southern Sudan the former militia groups who fought alongside them during the war”, General Oyay Deng Ajak, regional cooperation minister in the south who was formerly an SPLA chief of staff, was quoted as saying in the British Telegraph last August 15.

Alongside the failure to implement the CPA was the continued government-backed genocide in Darfur in Sudan’s west, which has killed some 300,000 people and displaced at least 3 million. While the government has signed a series of ceasefire agreements with most of the key rebel groups — the most recent with the Justice and Equality Movement in January and the Liberation and Justice Movement in February — the government 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 conflict and misery in the region. The government also rejected the Darfur groups’ requests that elections be delayed.

Despite his government’s well-known central role in the mass murder in Darfur, Al Bashir responded to his indictment for war crimes by the International Criminal Court with a mass publicity campaign attempting to present himself as a heroic defender of Sudanese sovereignty against Western interference.

For Al Bashir, the poll is a chance to consolidate power and legitimise his government and presidency. 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. On April 14, Al Bashir tried to pre-empt the likely rejection of the poll results by announcing that opposition parties including those who boycotted the elections would be invited to participate in the new government.

US support

The US government has continued to defend the elections as flawed but legitimate, despite extensive evidence to the contrary, and as a step forward for democracy in Sudan. US Special Envoy Scott Gration, who tried to convince the opposition parties to cancel their plans to boycott, declared on April 3 after meeting with the NEC that the election would be “as free and fair as possible”. According to the April 8-14 edition of the Cairo-based Al Ahram Weekly, this prompted Al Bashir to announce to an election rally the following week that, “Even the Americans are members of the NCP now; no one can defeat us.”

While Khartoum’s role in the Darfur genocide has come under criticism by both the Obama and Bush regimes (pressured by the substantial US public concern about Darfur), the US is clearly not currently seeking regime change in Sudan.

Apart from the US being too tied down in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere to contemplate serious intervention into Sudan, there is no clear option for a US-preferred government to replace the NCP. No opposition party could claim sufficient support alone and democratic elements opposed to US interference including the Communist Party would be significant players in any legitimate alternative coalition government.

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” since 9/11, sharing the extensive intelligence its security agencies have collected on Islamic and anti-US groups in north Africa and the Middle East.

The Obama regime’s October policy announcement on Sudan called for an “orderly path toward two separate and viable states at peace with each other” following the referendum. The US is likely viewing the realisation of the South Sudanese people’s aspirations for independence as an opportunity for greater US control and influence in north Africa and as a chance to lift bans on US investment in Sudan, opening up significant opportunities for US oil companies.

[Kerryn Williams is an activist with the Socialist Alliance in Sydney, Australia.]