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Sudanese demonstrators rally demanding electoral reforms, ahead of next year's crucial national elections, in the capital Khartoum, Sudan, Monday, Dec. 7, 2009. Sudanese police on Monday used tear gas and batons to break up the demonstration in Khartoum by thousands of Sudanese protesters , and also arrested several senior southern Sudanese politicians, according to witnesses. (Photo: AP)
Many Sudanese demand electoral reformsImage: AP

Litmus test for peace

February 17, 2010

With an historic poll only two months away in Sudan, tensions between the northern government and former southern rebels have increased again. They could threaten the country's first general election in 24 years.


Whether Sudan's 16 million eligible voters will in fact be able to cast their ballot as planned, no one can say at this time. Only a few days ago, Sudan's foreign minister Deng Alor of the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) threatened that the south might boycott the election, in which the Sudanese elect their national and regional parliaments and their president. Since the end of the civil war five years ago, the SPLM has formed a coalition with the government in Khartoum, but it has never been a stable one.

South might boycott elections

President Omar al-Bashir, centre attends the opening session of the Arab League Summit in Doha, Qatar, 30 March 2009.
President Omar al-Bashir hopes to prevent having to face charges of genocideImage: picture alliance / abaca

Justifying the threat of a boycott, Alor said that Khartoum has manipulated the number of constituencies across the country leaving the south underrepresented. The issue is one of many that increasingly leave the government and the former rebel factions at loggerheads. Whether it's new security legislation or the set-up of the election commission, the tensions are increasing in the run up to the election.

Despite these problems, Marina Peter of the Sudan Ecumenical Forum remains optimistic that people will have a chance to go to the polls: "The elections are in a lot of people's interest, including the president", she told Deutsche Welle. "He hopes that a victory will help him avoid being prosecuted by the International Court of Justice. But also the people in the south have a real stake particularly in the regional elections, because so far, they couldn't choose their representatives there."

Free and fair elections?

Even if the election goes ahead as scheduled, it is uncertain whether they will be free and fair. Human Rights Watch has already documented several attempts of intimidating members of the opposition, making it hard for them to run an efficient campaign. Some were held weeks without charges, although a recently implemented security law had banished such practices.

Still, the civil rights situation in Sudan has not improved, says David de Dau, speaker of the South Sudan Civil Society coalition. "We don't have freedom of speech. You can't find a single person who will speak openly to a journalist on the street", he told Deutsche Welle. "The press is very restricted too. The freedom of assembly is almost non-existent. These violations contradict the principles of democracy and free and fair elections.”

Conflicts keep away voters

In addition to political problems, poor infrastructure could also prove an obstacle for voters. Outside of South Sudan's capital Juba, there are no paved roads. While it can take days to reach certain areas,  the election will be held only for a week. Experts believe that this is  not enough time for everyone to cast their vote.

For De Dau, the armed conflicts across the country are yet another problem: “In Darfur, rebels and government troops are still fighting. A lot of voters haven't been registered there yet, especially those who live in urban areas. We have a similar situation in south Sudan and some areas in the north. Most people in the south haven't even been informed about the election.”

Failing voter education

Rwandan soldiers serving with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), sing and dance patriotic songs
Ongoing conflicts make voter registration difficultImage: AP

That is why voter education is desperately needed and crucial. Due to the civil war, many Sudanese have never voted and are not familiar with the proceedings. Yet, voters in the south have to fill out eleven different ballots, because they will not only elect a national, but also a regional parliament, the president and various regional institutions.

These problems have led some Sudanese politicians to call for postponing the election date, in order to give the government more time to educate voters. However, experts are skeptical of such a move because it would delay other important decisions as well. For example, voters in south Sudan are scheduled to cast their ballot in a referendum on whether they should become independent from Khartoum or not in January 2011.

"Referendum at risk"

The referendum is part of the peace treaty that was signed between the government and the rebels five years ago. The treaty states that elections must be held before the referendum. Pushing back the election would therefore also postpone the referendum. "If we don't have decent elections in Sudan, the referendum is at risk", says Marina Peter. "And if the referendum is at risk, people will not put up with that. They will try to reach their goal of independence by all means.”

Such a move by the south would surely trigger opposition from the north. Therefore, experts hope that the elections will still take place despite all the difficulties - so that the peace treaty remains in effect and Sudan will not have to endure another civil war.

Author: Daniel Pelz / jab
Editor: Michael Knigge

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