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Middle East

Sudan's Bashir to extend rule amid calls for boycott

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir is expected to extend his 25-year-rule in this week's election. Prominent opposition leaders have called for a boycott, dubbing the poll illegitimate. Simona Foltyn reports from Khartoum.

Preparations for Sudan's forthcoming election are in full swing, but the mood on the capital's streets suggests that next week's vote will be little more than a formality extending the 25-year-rule of President Omar al-Bashir. Many voters in Khartoum seem uninterested in turning out.

"Bashir will win, there is no real alternative," said taxi driver Qatura Ali Haj, who doesn't plan to vote.

Thirteen million voters have registered to cast their ballots over a period of three days starting on April 13 in the country's presidential and parliamentary elections. According to figures obtained from the National Election Commission (NEC), 16 presidential candidates and 45 parties are contesting the elections. State governors will no longer be elected following a recent constitutional amendment widely critiqued for concentrating more power in the hands of the president, who can now appoint governors in Sudan's 18 states.

Despite the large number of candidates and parties, most are believed to have little to no appeal to the electorate. "I have never heard of most of the other presidential candidates," said Haj, the taxi driver.

Prominent opposition figures, including the once-deposed prime minister Sadiq Al Mahdi and former ruling party leader Ghazi Salahuddin, have called on voters to boycott the elections. The vote, they say, is illegitimate, in part due to ongoing armed conflicts and unfair constitutional changes.

"The boycott will expose the weakness of the government, and the fact that the election is not free and fair," said Salahuddin, who cofounded the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and previously served as a presidential advisor to al-Bashir. He now leads the Reform Now Movement.

Omar al-Bashir

Bashir has little to fear

The opposition has demanded the postponement of the elections to allow space for the national dialogue between the NCP and the opposition. The dialogue was called by President al-Bashir in January 2014 to appease growing political tensions, particularly following the government's violent crackdown on street protests in September 2013.

The government, however, has rejected the request for postponement, claiming the vote doesn't preclude the continuation of the talks.

"If we postpone the election, the government won't be legitimate," said Rabi Abd Al-Atie, a leading member of the NCP.

The national dialogue has borne little fruit so far amid mutual trading of accusations. The government has blamed the opposition for obstructing the process by imposing unrealistic preconditions, including the formation of a transitional government. Opposition members, on the other hand, have questioned the sincerity of the dialogue, which is led by President al-Bashir.

Unresolved issues

This is Sudan's second election since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005, which ended decades of war with South Sudan, but left ongoing conflicts in the Nuba Mountains and Darfur unresolved. The aftermath of South Sudan's secession in 2011 was marked by economic turmoil, as Khartoum struggled to deal with the loss of oil revenue, which accounted for 55 percent of the national budget.

Growing public discontent as well as calls for a holistic political solution by a coalition of rebel groups and political parties pressured the government to engage more seriously in negotiations last year.

But some observers say that window of opportunity has now closed. Peace talks in Addis Ababa ended in deadlock in December last year. Sudan's recent decision to participate in the Saudi-led coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen has helped normalize previously strained relations with the Gulf as well as neighboring Egypt and Libya.

"Now that they have pacified the regional powers, the NCP might not be as enthusiastic to continue with the national dialogue," said Hassan Ahmed, dean of Economic and Social Studies at the University of Khartoum. The alliance with Saudi Arabia is further expected to give a breather to an economy stifled by Western sanctions.

Osman Aldissougi leans on his taxi

Osman Aldissougi, a state legislature candidate, has to work as a taxi driver to fund his campaign

Conversely, the financing of the election is putting a strain on the economy. Bilateral donors financed almost half of the budget for the 2010 vote, which was perceived to be a critical precondition for South Sudan's referendum. This year, the NEC received no outside funding.

"The reason given is that the opposition is boycotting the elections," said Safwat Fanoos, a member of the commission.

Western organizations, including the EU and the Carter Center, will also not be deploying observation teams.

The parties that are contesting the elections claim that working with the ruling party is more effective than shunning the ballot box.

Dancers in colorful dress

Dancers from the Nuba Mountains campaigned for an opposition group that is not joining the boycott

Osman Aldissougi is running for the state legislature in Khartoum under a small splinter group of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) - the movement that fought the Khartoum regime for decades and now rules South Sudan. Aldissougi's party wants to lobby the NCP for peace and development in the Nuba Mountains and scolds rebel groups there for propagating an unwinnable war.

"The rebels don't really want peace. All they want is power," said Aldissougi, who has to work as a taxi driver to finance his campaign.

The party's president has no illusions about the unfair electoral environment. "We are not expecting good results, but we want to voice that we are here to stay," said Daniel Kodi. When asked why his party didn't field a presidential candidate, he replied: "Let us be realistic."

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