Middle East & Africa. Sudan’s elections
Better late than never
In Sudan the polls open, on African time
Apr 12th 2010 | JUBA AND KHARTOUM | From The Economist online
REMARKABLY, after all confusion of last week, Sudan’s multi-party elections started on April 11th as planned. But perhaps it was too much to expect the polling stations to open promptly at 8am as well. Sure enough, in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, voters and officials at several polling centres were left kicking their heels for hours waiting for the ballot papers to turn up. In the north, it was reported that some people were not able to vote until late afternoon.
But since this was the first time that most Sudanese had been able to vote since 1986, a delay here and there wasn’t going to dampen the generally festive spirit of the day. Asked if he was disappointed at the tardiness of the polls, one Dinka tribesman in Juba sagely replied that he was confident they would open eventually, on “African time”.
The late openings will, however, further complicate an already dangerously cumbersome exercise. In the south of the country, voters are being asked to cast 12 ballots, covering different tiers of government in the country as a whole as well as in the south specifically. In the north, voters will cast 8 ballots. In a country in which many people are illiterate, this is time-consuming. On Sunday, in Juba, some voters were taking half an hour to get through all the ballots. An extension of the three-day voting period is likely.
Many voters will be confused as to who is officially standing, too. Some opposition parties “boycotted” the vote in protest against the pre-election rigging of President Omar al-Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP). But their boycotts do not extend to all levels of government, or all parts of the country. The main opposition party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM; made up of one-time southern rebels), withdrew its candidate, Yasir Arman, from the presidential contest, but it is unclear whether it is officially running for any other offices. Besides, Mr Arman and the other politicians supposedly boycotting the election still appear on the ballot papers. If everyone votes for him anyway, will he persist with his boycott? No-one seems to know.
It may be an academic point, especially in the north, where victory for anyone but the NCP already seems unlikely. As expected, the party’s election-machine was out in force. Officials at NCP tents erected opposite many polling centres in Khartoum received supporters bussed in to vote. It is impossible to know whether they had all been legally registered at the relevant polling stations; some polling stations apparently did not have the lists of registered voters on view.
With far more money than any other party, the NCP can afford to do this sort of thing. The Umma party, the biggest northern opposition party, was able to cobble together just under $500,000 to spend centrally on the whole election. The NCP, by contrast, has deployed the full resources of the state, including its near-monopoly on the state media, to help its campaign.
To the people of southern Sudan, none of this makes much of a difference. They are far more concerned with their referendum on secession from the north, due early next year. In the north, however, opponents of Mr Bashir (who was indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court in March 2009) are in despair. They have no second tilt at him next year; if he wins they are stuck with him for at least another five years. Some feel betrayed by the boycotts and naked politicking of the opposition parties, particularly the SPLM. They are also angry with foreign countries (such as America) which seem to care less about these elections (and whether they are free and fair) than about the referendum and securing the new state of South Sudan. But where will that leave the millions of wretched north Sudanese, who face the prospect of years more rule by an indicted war criminal?