Gamal Nkumah takes a jaundiced look at the Sudanese election, boycotted by key opposition parties
The bickering and dithering over Sudan's presidential, legislative, state and local elections prompt many Sudanese to take a deep breath and carefully examine the state of their country's political development. The question uppermost in many Sudanese minds during the country's first multi-party vote since 1986 is how did so many shrewd opposition politicians find themselves stalemated and outmanoeuvred by the powers that be in Khartoum? The political bigwigs insist, however, that they are still not checkmated.
The growing notion among influential Sudanese politicians and pundits that Sudan is ungovernable is being reinforced by the widespread disenchantment with the election. Voter turnout was poor in most parts of the country, yet few doubt that voters will fail to push the president towards the finishing line. Sudanese President Omar Hassan Al-Bashir is not, contrary to predictions, making more vociferous pleas to his domestic foes -- northern and southern -- to bail him out. They, in turn have every reason not to throw him a lifeline.
Al-Bashir has declared that he is confident of making sweeping gains in the presidential, parliamentary and state polls in Sudan. The country's National Election Commission announced on Tuesday that it is extending the polling for another two days to Thursday. The Sudanese opposition parties have complained bitterly of serious irregularities in the electoral process with complaints of rigging and widespread fraud.
The international community and observers, however, have been by and large happy with the turn of events. The consensus among international observers is that the political obstacles to former United States president Jimmy Carter, head of the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, expressed satisfaction with the electoral process in Sudan. Carter explained that the irregularities in the electoral process are largely due to practical problems of poor infrastructure and underdevelopment rather than to deliberate rigging of the election results. "Those are administrative problems, but there is no evidence of fraud," Carter insisted. With 16 million registered voters, many polling stations are empty in the remote backwaters of the country. Local officials complain of delays in distributing ballot papers, voter names are frequently either missing or mispelled on registration lists. Violence however was minimal.
Sudanese opposition parties, however, disagree. Both the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of Al-Bashir and its main southern-based coalition partner the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) have come under intense fire for manipulating the election results. Al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Sudan's westernmost war-torn region of Darfur, is already boasting of a resounding victory.
The NCP and the SPLM will have to pull off an unprecedented feat. The political obstacles to a smooth electoral procedure are less daunting than the technical ones. The crisis of underdevelopment is casting a long shadow of doubt on the credibility of the Sudanese presidential and parliamentary elections. Darfur, in spite of tentative ceasefire agreements in Qatar between the Sudanese government and several of the armed opposition groups including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), is still plagued by insurgency. The electoral process in southern Sudan, too, has been hampered by political squabbles between the SPLM and its southern- based political rivals.
Former Sudanese foreign minister Lam Akol of the confusingly named Sudan People's Liberation Movement Democratic Change (SPLM- DC), has bitterly complained of the mainstream SPLM's interference in the polling process. He reserved his most damning criticism for the SPLM-dominated Southern Sudanese Army. "The southern army went to a polling station in Riak [the oil-rich Unity State in southern Sudan] and opened fire killing two voters and wounding one candidate," Lam Akol remonstrated. "The credibility of the results has already been put into question. We shall not be party to a flawed election."
The SPLM-DC and other SPLM rivals are hoping for easy election in the southern Sudanese polls, but progress will be slower than they had led voters to believe. Bona Malwal, presidential adviser to President Al-Bashir, and the leader of the South Sudan Democratic Forum, also bitterly complained about what he saw as gross interference in the electoral process in southern Sudan by the SPLM. "In all the polling stations in the countryside polling processes are done under the trees. The voter does everything from checking his name to depositing his ballot paper in the open with everybody watching. The voter who votes against the SPLM is singled out for retribution and is detained for questioning after casting his or her vote. This is sheer intimidation," Malwal protested.
In both northern and southern Sudan, polling officers are quoted in numerous opposition papers as castigating the National Electoral Commission for having delayed the delivery of voting tools to the polling stations. The problem, once again, is that it is not absolutely clear whether such delays are because of the poor infrastructure facilities in much of Sudan -- the country is a sprawling country, Africa's largest -- or because of deliberate machinations by the authorities, whether the NCP electioneering machinery in the North or the SPLM-dominated political, police and military establishment in the south. These adverse conditions, the Sudanese opposition note, are not conducive to the smooth casting of their votes in the presence of the election observers.
The Southern Sudan Police Service (SSPS) is also accused of siding with the SPLM and of assisting the SPLM in intervening in the polling centres. "This is not true. Some of the political parties in the south are bad losers. They know that they do not stand a chance and they are making up excuses for their political weaknesses," Yassir Arman, the former presidential candidate of the SPLM in northern Sudan told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We must distinguish between the autonomous government of southern Sudan and the SPLM. People often confuse the two," Arman explained. One hundred thousand soldiers are deployed across northern Sudan alone. The situation is less clear in the south.
Yet other prominent southern Sudanese leaders are vociferously pro-NCP. Agnes Lukudu, head of the NCP southern Sudan sector and a staunch Al-Bashir supporter, defended the NCP position in southern Sudan. "We in the NCP have come under tremendous pressure when campaigning in southern Sudan, yet we are hopeful of making significant gains," she told the Weekly. She, nevertheless, complained of SPLM intervention in the electoral process.
The bitterest struggle, however, may be to overcome the resentment generated by the election expenses scandal. It has touched southern Sudan particularly hard because the region is among the least developed not only in Sudan, but also in the world at large. People in southern Sudan while excited at being given their first chance in almost three decades of participating fully in multi-party elections, are resentful of the huge amounts spent on the electoral process. Many southern Sudanese believe that there are far more pressing matters that necessitate urgent funding. Upgrading healthcare, education and social services -- the real bread and butter concerns of the southern Sudanese masses -- are far more important than the furore over the election campaign. The need for more sophisticated campaigning must play second fiddle to the need for improved social welfare issues. These are the concerns that hold sway among the voters of Sudan -- north and south.