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Africa

Voting in Sudan election extended by a day to boost turnout

Sudanese voters show little interest in an election that President al-Bashir is expected to win. The opposition called for a boycott and polling station staff have little to do other than welcome visiting candidates.

Few voters trickled to polling stations over the first three days of voting in Sudan's capital Khartoum. Voting has now been extended by a further day in the hope of higher turnout numbers in an election the legitimacy of which has been disputed.

A pre-election report released by the African Union concluded that the conditions "for the holding of transparent, competitive, free and fair elections [..]have not been satisfied."

Sixteen presidential candidates and forty-five political parties contested the election, the country's first since South Sudan's secession in July 2011. State governors will no longer be elected following a recent constitutional amendment widely criticized for concentrating more power in the hands of the president.

Other notable amendments since the 2010 vote include the elimination of the 3 percent threshold that political parties must secure to get a seat in the state and national assemblies, as well as a contentious broadening of the powers of the National Security Services.

election observers wait for voters

Election observers patiently wait for voters to turn up

President Omar al-Bashir and his ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are widely expected to win in a country that has yet to see regime change through the ballot box. Few of the presidential candidates running against the president, who has been in power for a quarter of a century, are known to the public, while political parties have struggled to raise funds to run credible campaigns.

In 2009 Bashir became the world's first sitting president to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. In December 2014 the ICC said it was shelving its investigations into alleged war crimes in Darfur. Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda criticized the UN Security Council for failing to push for Bashir's arrest.

Lack of interest among voters

Low participation could raise further questions about the already controversial elections, but it is uncertain whether the extra day of voting will mobilize many more voters. Many Sudanese believe the outcome of the election is already certain.

Images of sleeping staff in deserted voting stations circulated on social media on the second day of voting. Candidates toured polling stations, only to find some of them empty. Local observers sat idly next to ballot boxes. "The turnout is very low, especially compared to the last elections. But we hope more people will come still," said Amna Omer Abdalla a few hours before the polling stations closed. Abdalla observed the vote for Yanabee, a local Sudanese NGO, and one of the local and regional organizations that deployed observers.

A small group of people at a polling station

This was one of the busier polling stations on the first day of voting

In a polling station in Khartoum's Haj Youssif area, one polling staff member, who did not give his name as he was not authorized to speak to the media, told DW that a little over 10 percent of registered voters had turned out in the first three days of voting. Staff at other polling stations across the capital gave turnout figures ranging from 10 to 20 percent. Voter participation in the rural areas is expected to be higher.

The government rejected observations about low voter participation. "We are quite satisfied with the turnout of the people," said presidential advisor Ibrahim Ghandour at a press conference on the last day of voting. He added it was premature to comment on turnout figures before official results were released.

Calls for boycott

Key opposition parties, including former Prime Minister Sadiq Al Mahdi's Umma Party, called on the electorate to boycott the elections, which they believe will not be free and fair.

During the days leading up to the vote, the Umma Party organized sit-ins to call attention to what they believe is an uncompetitive election environment. "We are boycotting the election because it lacks any legitimacy. The ruling party, which has been in power for 25 years, is overseeing every aspect of the election: it wrote the laws, it is financing it, and it has appointed the officials," said Mohammed Al Mahdi Hassan, head of the Umma Party's political wing.

But the voters who are turning out insist on their constitutional right to choose their leaders. Sir Khateem Daafallah, a 52-year-old employee, contended that those who boycott the elections are betraying their country. "If you are opposed to the government, come and compete in the elections. Maybe you win, maybe you don't win," Daafallah said at his polling station in Khartoum.

The EU and the Carter Center, which declared the 2010 elections to be "not very competitive", are not observing or financing this year's vote. Bilateral donors funded almost half of the budget for the 2010 vote, which was perceived to be a critical precondition for South Sudan's referendum. Many government officials say that the West, believed to have been in favor of South Sudan's independence, supported the 2010 vote only for political reasons.

President Omar al-Bashir

There is no strong challenge to President Omar al-Bashir

In a statement released a few days before the onset of the election, the European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini declared that "the upcoming elections cannot produce a credible result" and that the Sudanese people "deserved better."

The remarks were met with discontent in Khartoum. The EU's envoy to Sudan was summoned by the Sudanese foreign minister. Dr. Nafie Ali Nafie, a former presidential advisor to al-Bashir and one of the most powerful members of the NCP, said the statement was "unacceptable and undiplomatic."

Nafie further criticized the international community for siding with the opposition and rebels in the Nuba mountains, who demanded a postponement of the election and the creation of a transitional government. "In this interim period, [the rebels] want to fully dismantle the NCP. That is their dream, which is fully supported by the US, Britain and now the Troika."

Stability rather than risk

Since the secession of South Sudan, Sudan has been grappling with unresolved issues from the two countries' troubled past and incomplete separation. Ongoing fighting in the Nuba mountains, a volatile border region where the rebel group SPLM-North has vowed to disrupt voting, has prompted the National Election Commission to cancel elections in seven constituencies. Voting has also been cancelled in two constituencies in the conflict-ridden region of Darfur.

Despite insecurity and the economic hardship that has hit Sudan following the loss of the bulk of its oil reserves to South Sudan, many Sudanese have become weary of demanding change, particularly following the violent crackdown on street protests in September 2013.

Turmoil in neighboring Egypt, Libya and South Sudan has made the Sudanese even more risk-averse. For many of them stability now seems to be the biggest priority. "We in Sudan want a person that is well known to all of us. Therefore, Bashir is the right person to run this country," said Mustafa Osman, 32, an engineer from Khartoum's Riyadh area. Osman had still to cast his vote in the hours remaining in this election.