Sudan’s Elections and the Country’s Endgame
by J.PETER PHAM, PHD
April 8, 2010
With opposition parties likely to boycott critical parts of the Sudanese elections scheduled to begin on Sunday, not only are the polls unlikely to deliver anything close to the “democratic transformation” that some foreign governments and other international partners had hoped for, but the fact that the process has degenerated into a farce may well seal Sudan’s fate as a unified state.
Even under the best of circumstances, the Sudanese elections that is set for April 11-13 would have presented extraordinary challenges, both with respect to logistics and to the complexity of the exercise itself. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. Yet that area of 2.5 million square kilometers (equal to about one-quarter of the United States) is crisscrossed by barely 4,000 kilometers of paved roads, less than half the total length of the residential streets of Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. Moreover, only half of the poorly connected population of approximately 41 million Sudanese is even literate and none has ever voted in a reasonably free and fair nationwide general election for the simple reason that since Sudan’s independence from the rule of Anglo-Egyptian “condominium” in 1956, it has never held such a poll: of the five presidential votes the country has had, three (1971, 1977, and 1983) featured only one candidate, while two (1996 and 2000) took place during the civil war and did not include the participation of southern Sudan.
In this context, the ambitious design of the schedule poll was nothing short of sheer folly. According to the plan laid out in the National Elections Act of 2008, all voters would cast ballots for president, members of the National Assembly, as well as the governor and state legislators of the state they reside in. Voters in South Sudan would also choose the president of the Government of South Sudan (GOSS) and members of the South Sudan Assembly. The voting system, however, is quite complicated. Both presidents are elected by majority vote with provision for a run-off between the two leading candidates should no one win an outright majority in the first round. The governors of the 25 states need only receive a plurality to win. Legislative elections are a bit more involved. Of the 450 members of the National Assembly, 270 are elected in single-member, first-past-the-post constituencies; the remaining 180 seats will be allocated on a proportional representation basis, with 62.5 percent of them going to state-level closed party lists reserved for women candidates and 37.5 percent from separate state-level closed party lists (a 4 percent minimum threshold is required to win any seats). Voting for the 170-member South Sudan Assembly and each of the 48-member state legislatures (except in Khartoum, which has a 94-member assembly, and Southern Kordofan, which has a54-member body) which likewise will involve a three-tier system with 60 percent of the seats in each determined by first-past-the-post contests in single-member constituencies, 25 percent by proportional representation from statewide party lists reserved for women, and 15 percent by proportional representation from statewide party lists. As a result of this complex constitutional arrangement, voters will have to complete no fewer than eight different ballots in the North, while those in the 10 states of South Sudan would have to deal with 12 different ballots. In total, 1,268 different ballots will have to be prepared and the correct ones delivered to the right polling stations (of which there are 17,914 nationwide in 10,320 different locations). Moreover, once the state legislatures are constituted, they would each have to elect the two members to represent their state in the upper house of the Sudanese parliament, the Council of States.
Carrying this off without significant hitches would be difficult, even with all the good will in the world. The problem is, of course, is that good will is a very scarce commodity in Sudan, thanks largely to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP, a.k.a. the National Islamic Front, NIF) regime of incumbent President Umar Hassan al-Bashir who, notwithstanding his indictment last year by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, continues to rule from Khartoum as he has since he seized power in a 1989 coup d’état (ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said last month that the upcoming Sudanese poll was “a Hitler election”). Not only was NCP majority in the outgoing parliament responsible for the Elections Act, but it was the regime itself that has been largely to blame for the lackluster implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) which was supposed to end the decades of civil war between the Arab-dominated Muslim north of the country and black, largely Christian, South Sudan, a conflict had taken the lives more than 2.5 million people and displaced another 5 million, most of them South Sudanese civilians.
After repeated delays and missed deadlines, the census mandated by the peace accord was only undertaken in 2008 and lasted barely a fortnight. The count was denounced at the time as a all-too-obvious attempt by the regime to inflate the population of the north while suppressing the headcount in the south in order to gain an advantage in political representation and any eventual distribution of the wealth from the approximately 500,000 barrels of oil – most of which originate in the South – exported daily out of the Marsa al-Bashair terminal near Port Sudan. Despite longstanding objections by both the GOSS and international observers to the validity of the census results by Khartoum, those figures were nonetheless used by the National Elections Authority (NEC) to allocate the number of parliamentary and state legislative seats to each area and to delimit the constituencies (according to a recent report by the Rift Valley Institute, in Darfur, whole parts of states have been left out any constituency). As a result of this maneuver, the ten states of South Sudan together have been allocated only one-fourth of the number of National Assembly seats awarded to the fifteen northern states. The shift is significant because South Sudan would no longer be able to block major legislation, much less changes to the country’s constitution – the former requires a two-thirds majority of parliament, while the latter a three-quarters of the vote, and, under the interim arrangement, the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has 126 seats and other South Sudanese parties have 27 seats in the National Assembly, together 34 percent of the total.
When it finally got underway at the end of 2009, the registration process for the election – which itself was supposed to have taken place more than a year ago – has likewise been less than reassuring. No provision was made in the Elections Act for registration and voting by the almost 5 million internally displaced persons, much less the estimated 420,000 Sudanese refugees – significant numbers when one considers that the total population of the country according to the official census figures is just over 39 million. During the short registration period in November and December 2009, the NEC registered 15.7 million voters, or just over 75 percent of those which the government census figures suggested might be eligible to vote. Not surprisingly, the proportion of those registered was significantly lower in regions like Darfur, which have seen conflict and continue to experience insecurity. However, since the census identified Darfur as home to one-fifth of the total Sudanese population, the region was awarded legislative constituencies accordingly. The implication is, therefore, that these parliamentary seats will be filled by candidates who are not necessarily representative. In short, not every vote will carry the same value.
Nor has the political and legal framework been especially conducive to a free and fair election. Just after the conclusion of voter registration, the NCP majority in the outgoing parliament passed a repressive National Security Act which not only gave the dreaded National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) sweeping new powers, but also broad immunity to government agents who act “in good faith” carrying out the provisions of the security law. In addition, the parliamentary majority blocked opposition parties’ attempts to introduce legislation to guarantee basic freedom of expression, association, and movement during the campaign. Not to be outdone in its zeal to hobble the opposition, the NEC published regulations which required political parties and candidates to apply for permission 72 hours in advance of any campaign activities, including those taking place in their own homes or offices (!). And it goes without saying that state-owned media, including television and radio, has given the despot Bashir fawning coverage while ignoring opposition candidates when it is not denouncing them. Opposition candidates were required submit any prospective broadcast messages for pre-approval. And less than a month before the voting was scheduled to begin, it was came to light that instead of being printed abroad as was previously announced – a measure which would have deterred some fraud – the NEC had the ballots printed by a government printing company in Khartoum without giving agents for any of the political parties or independent observers the opportunity to ensure the integrity of the printing process.
Despite all these problems, less than two weeks ago the United States presidential envoy to Sudan, J. Scott Gration, was still insisting in an interview with the Reuters news service’s Andrew Quinn that the poll“even if flawed, would mark a step toward establishing a democratic framework of voter rolls, electoral authorities and monitors that will underpin political decision-making.” Without any apparent irony – much less shame—the retired Air Force major general affirmed that “it is important that the election takes place on time, and is done in a way that the people themselves see as credible.” This pathetic naïveté on the part of America’s lead Sudan mediator—a man whom even the editors of The New Republic have dubbed him the “Ingratior” for his “unacceptable” and “almost utopian” perspective on international relations – is perhaps due to the fact that, as I have noted previously, unlike every other senior member of the Obama administration’s Africa team, he has rather limited Africa experience, much less a record of any distinction as a policymaker on or a scholar of the continent. Or maybe it is just a retired two-star general’s deference to the rank of the (self-promoted) Field Marshal Bashir.
In any event, it must have been a rather rude awakening to the special envoy when, last week, the SPLM pulled its candidate, Yasir Arman, out of the national presidential race, citing massive fraud to engineer a “win” for the incumbent Bashir. The SPLM, which while primarily a South Sudanese movement has support in other regions, also decided to pull out of races in Darfur. If he was at all embarrassed by the turn of events, General Gration rebounded quickly, telling the BBC on Saturday that the NEC had made him confident “that the elections will start on time and they would be as free and as fair as possible” and assuring his interviewer that “these people have gone to great lengths to ensure that the people of Sudan will have access to polling places and that the procedures and processes will ensure transparency” – this when, albeit in very diplomatic language, even the Carter Center has suggested that credible elections at this time are not possible. In response, the Umma Reform and Renewal Party (URRP) led by a former prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, which has threatened to boycott the poll unless the government meets a series of conditions which it deems essential for a transparent election, released a statement on Monday blasting Gration for being “so engrossed in ceding to the will of the NCP and ensuring…the elections in April that he has shown clear disregard for their credibility.”
The key concept here is electoral credibility, which is indispensable to political legitimacy. The opposition parties rightly fear that participation in the polls would simply bestow legitimacy on a regime that had conspired from the beginning to rig the result, manipulating the census, gerrymandering the electoral districts, controlling the voter registration process, and deploying state resources to ensure that the ruling party a “win.”
Fortunately, the blatant effort to engineer a victory for Bashir and the NCP will backfire on the regime. Using a rigged process and fraudulent polls to impose illegitimate officials on an unwilling populace will further inflame the already fraught situation in Sudan. The discontent will be especially palpable in South Sudan because, under the provisions of the CPA, it is the newly elected national government that is supposed to organize the January 2011 referendum at which the South Sudanese would be allowed to decide whether they wish to remain a part of Sudan or to become independent. Having gone through this abusive electoral process, what confidence can they reasonably have that the resulting illegitimate president and parliament can be trusted to actually implement the peace agreement’s most radical provision? As for marginalized peoples elsewhere in Sudan, including in Darfur and in the restive eastern regions, their skepticism about the possibility for “democratic transformation” will be further reinforced, as will their inclination to support rebel groups which have defended their lands and rights – thus increasing the likelihood of conflict within areas of the north at the very time when tensions with the south will be ratcheting up.
For these reasons as well as the broader considerations I have previously highlighted, leaders in South Sudan will now face even greater pressure to declare independence without the benefit of a referendum, considering that the actual implementation of such a plebiscite will be even less likely and that the result of any popular consultation is hardly in doubt. And when the division takes place, the politicians in Khartoum who will have the most to lose by the secession of the resource-rich southern region will have no one to blame but themselves for not only doing nothing to make unity attractive during the interim period of the CPA, but also for actually hastening the breakup of Sudan by their ham-fisted attempts to keep it together under their domination at all costs.