JUBA, South Sudan — Voters in Africa’s largest country are going to the polls Sunday through Tuesday in Sudan’s first multi-party election in more than two decades, but a raft of last minute boycotts have undermined the credibility of the vote.
President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Darfur since 2003, is largely unopposed after the main opposition candidates pulled out to protest alleged rigging and intimidation by his National Congress Party (NCP).
Meanwhile, in the semi-autonomous south, Salva Kiir, president of the Government of Southern Sudan (GOSS), is unlikely to face a serious challenge from his main opponent Lam Akol, leader of a splinter group of the ruling Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM).
Critics say the election, written into the U.S.-backed Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended decades of north-south civil war in 2005, is offering Sudan’s 16 million voters little real choice and so will not reflect the will of the people.
“My concern is there won’t be any real choice,” Kennet Korayi, a Sudanese civil society activist, told GlobalPost. “The remaining presidential candidates are ideologically the same, in the south even the independent candidates are really SPLM.”
Others have criticized the sudden decisions by opposition party bigwigs to boycott sections of the vote irrespective of the will of the people.
“Recent events have thrown people into confusion because in a very short space of time there have been very rapid and significant changes,” said Leben Nelson Moro, a professor at Juba University.
Sudan is a vast country wracked by poverty despite the billions of dollars of annual oil wealth, much of which is siphoned off by corrupt leaders or spent on bloated defense budgets and political patronage.
Khartoum has boomed while Darfur burned and although the southern capital Juba has new roads and shiny buildings these symbols of development end before the city limits.
The presidential, parliamentary and governorship elections have been delayed time and again but are now expected to go ahead, with the first of three days of voting beginning on Sunday.
Bashir wants a victory at the polls to legitimize his rule. He seized power in a military coup in 1989 and has not yet been elected to office. In addition Bashir wants to win the elections to defy the ICC arrest warrant.
Last month the International Crisis Group (ICG) charged that Bashir had already stacked the odds in his favor by manipulating the national census and electoral register over the last two years.
Few in the south seem interested in Bashir’s shenanigans because for them the vote is one more step towards the real goal.
“People in the south are not interested in the election, it is a distraction from what they really want: independence,” said Korayi. (Read more about how the Sudan elections set the stage for independence of the south.)
According to the U.S.-brokered peace deal between north and south, a referendum will be held in January 2011 in which southerners are widely expected to vote for secession. This will split the country in two and, for the first time in Africa, redraw colonial-era boundaries.
Because most of Sudan’s oil is pumped out of southern soil there are fears that Bashir, who needs the oil revenues to prolong his hold on power, will use his victory at these elections to try to disrupt the promised referendum.
The southern government has been criticized for spending at least a quarter (and possibly much more) of its oil windfall on defense while 90 percent of the population live on less than a dollar a day, but southern Sudanese analysts say this misses the main concern of the southern population.
“People here know that there is a real possibility of war. We need to get the south first then we can get development, governance, proper elections,” said Moro. “If we build now and then we go back to war what did we build for?”
The polling days are expected to be chaotic. Layers of administration mean that northern voters are supposed to cast eight separate ballots; southerners 12, as they will vote for regional as well as national governments. Ballot boxes and papers have to be distributed across 1.5 million square miles of countryside with few roads.
Added to the logistical challenges is the fact that most have never voted before and, in the south, around 85 percent are illiterate.
“How can you expect an illiterate person who has never held a pen, who has never voted before, to cast 12 ballots?” asked Korayi.