Sudan's Election Fiasco

Sudan's Election Fiasco

The upcoming poll may lead to a violent split between the country’s north and south—and the eventual disintegration of Sudan.

Former President George W. Bush is nowadays widely derided for his "faith-based" approach to foreign policy, characterized, according to its critics, by both the overweening ambitions of its promoters and their universalistic assumptions about other societies. However, it turns out that many, including some of Bush's most vociferous international and American detractors, have dogmatic fetishes of their own which now threaten to turn this weekend's elections in Sudan from a mere fiasco into a geopolitical crisis of the first magnitude.

The history of the modern Sudan is a complicated story with seemingly endless cycles of marginalization, extremism and conflict, including two major civil wars-the second of which only ended five years ago after more than two decades of brutal violence in which at least two million people, most of them civilians in the south, lost their lives. Another five million were displaced. After all that, one might have thought that the logical course of action might have been to declare "irreconcilable differences" and proceed to brokering a peace whereby the two parties to the conflict, the Arab-dominated Islamist regime in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which represented the largely Christian Black African peoples in the south, could go their separate ways. The moment, after all, was ripe: both sides had exhausted themselves and Sudan's neighbors had taken a lead in demanding an end to hostilities which had destabilized the whole subregion. 

Unfortunately, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2005 was less a product of realpolitik than a monument to abstract notions about human nature and politics. The question of a possible partition was deferred until January 2011, when southern Sudanese would be allowed to vote on whether to remain in a united Sudan or strike out on their own. In the meantime, the National Congress Party (NCP) of President Umar Hassan al-Bashir was forced into an awkward cohabitation with its sworn SPLM foes. The unspoken aspiration of many diplomats was that the "unity government" would prove to be inclusive and efficient enough that southerners would be persuaded to stay put. Elections were supposed to be held to put to seal on the "democratic transformation" of Sudan. In short, a policy was constructed based more on belief-some would even say wishful thinking-than sober analysis of the dynamics of the conflict.

It goes without saying that things have not quite work out as planned. Of course, it was never going to be easy. The logistics alone are daunting: for example, because of the unwieldy electoral system, no fewer than 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. To expect a country emerging from more than a generation of violent conflict and with no experience of having held anything resembling a free-and-fair nationwide general election, to change overnight requires nothing short of an act of faith. In the case of Sudan, it is a faith that was quickly shattered by its encounter with the realities of missed deadlines, manipulated census counts, flawed voter registration processes, gerrymandered constituencies and other skullduggery. Most of this mischief was perpetrated by minions of the regime in Khartoum with the goal of keeping Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court on five counts of crimes against humanity and two counts of war crimes for his role in the humanitarian disaster in Darfur, in the presidential palace and out of the hands of international prosecutors.

Not surprisingly, fearing that their participation in the election would simply bestow legitimacy on a regime that conspired to rig the result, the SPLM and other opposition parties, including the moderate Islamist Umma Reform and Renewal Party (URRP) which enjoys considerable support in the north, have announced selective boycotts of parts of the poll. With the European Union pulling its election observers from Darfur and the Carter Center calling for a delay in the vote, about the only person who believes in the desirability of the poll, such as it is, is U.S. special envoy J. Scott Gration, who continues to insist that elections, "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" and that "it is important that the election takes place on time."

In response to the SPLM's boycott of presidential poll, the Bashir regime has threatened to scuttle the referendum. Hence, whatever results are eventually announced from the vote, the Sudanese will find themselves pretty much where they were five years ago: with a regime in Khartoum whose legitimacy is, at best contested, and an alienated population in the south that is now more certain than ever that it wants out of the country altogether. As for marginalized peoples elsewhere in Sudan, including in Darfur (where an estimated half of the population is not only displaced, but now disenfranchised) and in the restive eastern regions, their skepticism about the possibility for peaceful change 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.

While most of the blame for this potentially explosive situation can be laid at the Khartoum's door, the international community also shares responsibility. Instead of investing its diplomatic and material resources in the type of orderly partition that was clearly warranted by the situation-as well as desired by the people most affected-outsiders insisted on deferring the question of southern independence in the belief that they could engineer such radical changes that the long-cherished aspiration would simply vanish. Or, barring that, at least the divorce would be amicable given the enforced cohabitation between the opposing parties mandated by the CPA. Not only will this not happen, but, precisely because the electoral mess itself has become yet another bone of contention between the two sides, expect the eventual breakup-which may not even wait for the referendum to sanction it-to be not only that much more bitter, but also likely to spill over into serious violence that will not spare Sudan's neighbors. And you don't need to take that on faith.  


J. Peter Pham is senior fellow and Africa project director at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.