The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Sudan's elections

My friend Dan Morrison, spent some time reporting all across Sudan while researching his forthcoming book The Black Nile: One Man's Amazing Journey Through Peace and War on the World's Longest River. He offers this analysis of the elections taking place in Sudan. You can read more of his work at his personal site,

A Travesty, a Logistical Nightmare, Irrelevant, Democracy

Four ways of looking at Sudan’s  national elections

Sudan’s first multiparty elections in 24 years started yesterday in an atmosphere of anger, hope and confusion. The previous elections, in 1986, followed a people’s uprising that removed a military dictator. How times change. Today another military dictator – Field Marshal Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal — is Sudan’s leading candidate for president.

Photo by Flickr user Fatma Naib

Befitting Africa’s biggest, and perhaps most complicated, country, there are several ways of looking at Sudan’s elections:

A Freaking Travesty

The fix is in.

Bashir’s National Congress Party, which took power in a 1989 military coup, has made campaigning all but impossible for opposition candidates in Sudan’s northern states. Political rallies have been squelched, activists jailed and Bashir’s party dominates the state-controlled airwaves. The vote in Darfur will be an electoral atrocity, according to the International Crisis Group; victims of the conflict have been ethnically cleansed from the voting rolls, while Arab tribes allied with Bashir have been over-counted. In light of this, all but one of Sudan’s major opposition parties has pulled out of the presidential and parliamentary elections, leaving the field to Bashir and his Islamist cadres (who, back in 1986, could only muster 10 percent of the vote).

But the rigged election isn’t solely the work of Bashir and his regime. The elections are a requirement of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the landmark treaty that ended the 22-year civil war between the Arab-led north and Sudan’s black south. After a conflict in which more than 2 million southerners died, the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement won broad autonomy and a chance for the south to formally secede from Sudan after a referendum scheduled for January. Therein lies another part of the fix.

During my travels as a reporter in southern Sudan in 2006 and 2007, I couldn’t find a single southerner who didn’t favor secession. The SPLM is Sudan’s most powerful opposition party, but its leaders in Juba, the southern capital, are more than willing to sacrifice the democratic aspirations of northern Sudanese if that’s what it takes to ensure a smooth breakup of the country next year. (And why not? The top northern opposition leaders – former prime minister Sadig al-Mahdi and Hassan al-Turabi, the former parliament speaker and the evil genius behind the 1989 Islamist coup – each spent their time in government waging pitiless war against the south.)

So the SPLM has essentially made a deal to support the election results as legitimate in exchange for a promise that Bashir won’t try too hard to impede the 2011 southern referendum. This collusion became especially clear last week, when the SPLM’s candidates in the north decided they wouldn’t play a rigged game, and announced a boycott in all but two northern states. Instead of supporting the boycott, the SPLM’s southern-based leadership publicly chided its northern candidates and announced (despite all evidence) that they would in fact participate. They wanted an election that foreigners could endorse, and the SPLM’s northern pull-out hurt the chances of that.

Bashir is looking for these elections to lend him the international legitimacy he has long craved. But with the opposition on strike and reports of fraud already piling up, his  biggest and best hope is a clean chit from the election observers of the Carter Center and the European Union (no one takes the observers from the Arab League and the African Union very seriously). The Carter Center especially has a long and constructive history in Sudan, but it may be torn between its duty to call the election for what surely will be – a travesty – and a desire to smooth the south’s path to self-determination in 2011.

An endorsement from former U.S. president and 2002 Nobel peace laureate Jimmy Carter, no matter how qualified, will rehabilitate an international pariah and accused genocidaire. Bashir, through threats and insults, has all but dared the Carter Center to pull out of Sudan, but it hasn’t taken the bait, demonstrating clearly that the West needs the perception of a fair election just as much as the stick-waving field marshal does.

A Logistical Nightmare

A friend says: “You couldn’t run this election in Canada, much less in Sudan. That’s how complex it is.”

Every two years or so, I walk into one of New York City’s charmingly antiquated voting booths, flick a half-dozen mechanical switches, pull the big lever on the right — and then freak out: “Jesus! Did I just vote for the Socialist Workers Party?”

I wouldn’t stand a chance in Sudan.

In the north, voters are wrestling with separate paper ballots, denoting races for president, the national assembly, governor and state assembly. The state and national assembly votes will include candidates running to represent individual constituencies in a first-past-the-post race, party ballots for proportional representation, and ballots for seats reserved for women. Southerners, who are also voting for a regional president and other posts, have twelve separate ballots.

Many candidates remain confused by the system, unsure if they are running against specific opponents or running on a party list. For voters, the confusion is an order of magnitude greater. Two NGOs in the south recently ran mock elections, asking educated local staffers to fill out ballots as they would on election day. The average time required was 15 minutes. Literate southerners taken off the street for the experiment needed 25 minutes. Illiterate southerners (who make up 86 percent of the population), working with assistance, required an average 40 minutes each to complete their ballots. Indeed, Salva Kiir himself spent ten minutes completing his ballot.  

Hafiz Mohammed, the Sudan director for Justice Africa, has calculated that, with more than 16 million registered voters, 10,230 polling places and 33 hours of voting time stretched over three days, each Sudanese voter will have approximately one minute to cast his or her vote. After complaints of widespread chaos during the first day of voting, Sudan’s election commission on Monday afternoon announced it would extend the polling period by two days, to April 16. 

The bottom line, according to one political consultant in Sudan: “If you have something remotely like what happened in Afghanistan, it will be a great success.”


The most powerful players in Sudan – Bashir and his NCP; the SPLM and its leader Salva Kiir; and the United States – are looking to 2011 and beyond. Their war games predicted an election clusterfuck and they’ve all made peace with it. It’s called realism.

That’s why President Obama’s special envoy to Sudan, retired general Scott Gration, has been so active in promoting what he and every grain of sand in the Nubian desert knows will be an illegitimate election. When Bashir tells a campaign rally, “Even America is becoming an NCP member. No one is against our will,” as he did in Blue Nile state on April 3, he’s talking about Obama’s man.

And he’s talking about us.

The West is willing to avert its eyes from the coming ugliness if it will help to midwife the south’s peaceful secession next year. That seems to be all the juice we have right now – enough to help the south, black and somewhat Christian, get finally free of its historical oppressors.

As for the Muslims in the north and their democratic aspirations, well, maybe next time.

Southerners see the election, however flawed, as a stepping-stone to an independent state. The northern opposition – rightly, bitterly – sees a deck stacked in part by Uncle Sam. One year from now, Bashir will dominate a geographically diminished Sudan while Salva Kiir similarly dominates an independent south. South Sudan will be another nominal African democracy, rich in oil and poor in everything else; the rump northern Sudan will remain an Arab autocracy, one finally open for business with the West.

Photo by Flickr user Fatma Naib.


But and still.

You have to start somewhere and, at least in the south, things are starting. There is a genuine hunger among southerners to vote. They may not know exactly what (or, with the exception of bigwigs like Salva Kiir, who) they’re voting for, but they want to vote.

And in a genuine flicker of democracy, the SPLM leadership has been shaken by the emergence of strong independent candidates for governor in three states. At least one, and possibly even two, of those candidates are likely to defeat SPLM incumbents, providing a real lesson in nonviolent people power.

And that’s not a bad way to look at an election.

Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile, coming in August from Viking Penguin.