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New Sudan Referendum Deal Raises Fresh Challenges

By Alan Boswell
20 October 2009

North and South Sudan say they have reached a breakthrough deal over the details of the long planned southern independence referendum. The agreement allows the South to secede with a simple majority vote, but will require a voter turnout of two-thirds for the referendum to be considered valid.

The North's ruling National Congress Party and the South's ruling Sudan People's Liberation Movement have been engaged for months of talks over the final implementation of the peace deal signed in 2005.

The most sensitive impasse has been over the details of an independence vote for South Sudan set for January 2011. The North has held the position that a 75 percent or even 90 percent majority vote in favor of secession should be required for the referendum to pass. The South has been demanding the threshold of a simple majority.

Sudan Foreign Ministry spokesman Moawya Othman Khaled confirms Khartoum reached the referendum agreement with the South.

"Yes, there is an agreement reached in the referendum row, based on two things," he said. "The first one - the quorum that must vote for the referendum should be two-thirds. And, the decision of independence could go with 50 percent plus one, that means simple majority."

Recent surveys and reports all indicate that the vast majority of southerners support secession, meaning the battle now for the South is likely to be fought over the new challenge of reaching the two-thirds quorum.

Based on voter turnout data from other countries, Sudanese analyst John Ashworth says that reaching the turnout requirement might be a bigger task than the South's leaders realize.

"Southern Sudan is going to find it extremely difficult to get two-thirds of the eligible voters to be able to vote, given the climate, the logistics, the terrain, the insecurity, the lack of capacity," said Ashworth. "All of these things which hampered the census are also going to hamper the referendum."

Ashworth says it is not clear yet whether the two-thirds mark is meant to apply to all eligible southern Sudanese voters, or whether it will only apply to registered voters in the South - which he says would be a more feasible, though still challenging, task. The voter registration process has yet to start.

He sees the new turn in the negotiations as favorable for the National Congress Party, one that creates a substantial new barrier to a fully independent southern Sudan.

"It was rather difficult for them [the NCP] to maintain this 75 percent majority vote. They probably were not getting much international support for that, because it did seem a bit unfair to everybody," he said. "So I think they found a new strategy. The quorum was not in the initial discussions."

The deal is not without its critics in the North. A major northern opposition party has blasted the compromise, saying the splitting of a nation is much too serious a decision to be chosen on the basis of a simple majority vote.

The United Nations has expressed concern that inter-ethnic violence in the South might prevent stable elections from taking place. The SPLM accuses Khartoum of instigating the violence, a claim the National Congress Party denies.

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