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Analysis: The dangers of Sudan's elections

JUBA/NAIROBI, 2 October 2009 (IRIN) - A new boycott threat by several political parties in Sudan illustrates how next year’s elections, billed as a milestone in democratic transformation, in fact present considerable challenges and could destabilize the country and further undermine an already shaky peace deal between north and south.

The threat to boycott Sudan’s first elections in two decades was issued in Juba, capital of Southern Sudan, by some 20 political parties, which demanded changes to laws relating to civil liberties, such as press freedom, and democracy.

A few days earlier, the London-based African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies said there had been an “increasing crackdown on freedom of expression in Sudan, targeting public discussion of, and preparation for, the elections. Since the beginning of August, Sudanese authorities have systematically targeted any activities, symposia, public rallies or lectures related to the elections.”

Signatories to the Juba Declaration include the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which governs the semi-autonomous Southern Sudan and has been a partner in a fragile national government since a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) put an end to 20 years of north-south war.

In the Juba Declaration, the parties also said they would stay away from the presidential, parliamentary and local polls unless a row over the results of a census – which affects electoral constituencies - was resolved.

The National Congress Party (NCP), led by President Omar el-Bashir, did not take up an invitation to participate in the talks.

The argument in favour

Although neither the SPLM nor the NCP was keen to include elections in the CPA negotiations, foreign sponsors of the peace process were convinced polls would help reverse the extreme centralization of power that has long been a major driver of conflict in Sudan.

The CPA originally scheduled elections for 2009, halfway though an interim period that culminates in an independence referendum in Southern Sudan in 2012. It was foreseen that the elections would also serve as “plebiscite on the CPA, engage political forces that were not included in the agreement and instil among the Sudanese population a sense of ownership of the peace process”, states Ticking the box - Elections in Sudan, a report by Jort Hemmer of the Netherlands Institute for International Relations’ Conflict Research Unit.

Opening the Juba conference, Southern Sudan’s president, Salva Kiir Mayardit, said: “I believe that the general elections, if properly conducted, shall be a critical impetus for change and empowerment of our people to choose their political leaders and elect their democratic institutions.

“If properly conducted... elections shall be a good opportunity for the Sudanese people to bring a real change through their free will as one major impetus to the process of democratic transformation,” he said, adding pointedly: “But those are two big ‘ifs’.”


Kiir’s principal caveat concerns this year’s population census, whose results he described as “too flawed and lack[ing] the minimum acceptable level of credibility.

“Without the resolution of this issue… the election process, despite our preparedness for it, may be put in jeopardy.”

There are also concerns about the level of this “preparedness”. In late August, the Carter Center warned in a report of “serious concerns about slippage in the overall electoral calendar” as well as “delays in key operational, policy, and budgetary decisions; continued restrictions on civil liberties; and the lack of adequate reform legislation needed to fully protect the fundamental freedoms of Sudanese citizens”.

It said the “ambitious” election schedule would “only be viable” if swift steps were taken to ensure further delays are avoided.

US Special Envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has spoken of the many challenges for the electoral process. “Not only do all the legislative laws need to be passed, but there is also election training, voter education, the security that is involved in it, the ballot boxes, the monitoring - all those kind of issues are very, very difficult.”

In a country where many citizens have never voted in their lives, the complexity of the poll is likely to be bewildering. The election will determine the presidencies and legislatures of both the Government of National Unity and Southern Sudan, state governorships and state assemblies. Some victors will be chosen under a first-past-the-post system, others by proportional representation.

In a recent report, the Rift Valley Institute noted that the numerous elections and referendums held in Sudan since 1953 “have not so far produced the kind of stable yet dynamic government that the secret ballot is intended to encourage” largely because of “widespread and massive” fraud under authoritarian regimes and lack of necessary resources.

While the report argued that elections should take place in Sudan, it warned of a “strong possibility that the forthcoming election will suffer from a combination of all the weaknesses that have undermined previous elections. There is widespread public scepticism and suspicion of possible malpractice, based on people’s experience in previous authoritarian elections; and there are immense logistical challenges.

“The stakes are very high. If the election should lack credibility, it is hard to see how the Comprehensive Peace Agreement can survive,” it said.

In Ticking the Box, Hemmer wrote that “Sudan’s political context presents an extremely unfavourable environment for an open and honest competition for power.

“Contested elections that spark large-scale political violence and, in the worse case, constitute a prelude to a new war is a realistic scenario,” he added, concluding that Sudan “had much to lose and little to gain” from holding elections in 2010.

This sentiment is shared by Sudan analyst John Ashworth. “By having elections you could actually derail democracy because of the context – a ceasefire between two warring parties. It doesn’t make sense to disrupt that before the end of the interim period.”


Copyright © IRIN 2009
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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