From The Economist print edition
The man at the top of the International Criminal Court’s most-wanted list is the favourite to be elected president, if elections take place at all
ON JANUARY 11th Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s president, resigned as head of the army, as the constitution requires, in order to accept his party’s nomination as its presidential candidate in a general election due in April. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the dominant party in the semi-autonomous region of south Sudan and ostensibly the main opposition party throughout the country, is set to announce its own candidate. But it is likely to be a lesser figure than its leader Salva Kiir, himself by no means charismatic. Some guess that the SPLM may not even put up a candidate against Mr Bashir at all.
Either way, Mr Bashir, a former field-marshal, will be the undoubted favourite to win the presidency of Africa’s biggest country. He may even be elected without a serious opponent. That would be an extraordinary—some would say chilling— feat for someone indicted as a war criminal by the international court at The Hague. Since his coup 21 years ago, he has presided over a jihad in his country’s south that, under his rule, has killed at least 500,000 people. He has also ravaged Darfur in the west, leaving another 300,000 dead and about 3m without homes.
When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, to international applause, on January 9th 2005 between Mr Bashir’s government in Khartoum and the southern rebels of the SPLM, it was all meant to turn out very differently. The accord did bring an end to decades of civil war between north and south. But the elections, now due to take place in April this year, were supposed to be a “transformative moment” in Sudan’s history.
For the first time since 1986, the Sudanese were to elect their government at every level, from the presidency down to the smallest of local administrative units, thus breaking the ruthless stranglehold that Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) has exerted on the country for two decades. Moreover, the accord provided for a referendum in the south, to take place in or before January 2011, on whether that vast region should secede from the north, creating a brand-new independent country.
But these planned elections have fallen victim to a general malaise that has permeated the CPA from the beginning. The deal was imposed on Sudan largely due to the relentless pressure of foreign countries, principally the United States. If it was to succeed, it needed outsiders to keep up the same degree of pressure after it was signed. Yet the war in the western region of Darfur, which reached its most violent stage as the CPA was being finalised, has eaten up most of the foreign diplomatic and financial resources that were promised to bolster the north-south agreement. So the implementation of the CPA, an extraordinarily complex document, has fallen far behind schedule. Little of the cash promised to build such things as joint military units, bringing together the forces of north and south in order to build confidence between the two sides, has materialised.
The elections promised for April were supposed to be held no later than July, 2009. They have been postponed three times already, and the money that has been made available to pay for them is so scarce that many people fear they may not happen at all. In a country with no tradition of modern democracy, where, for instance, about 75% of females (and 90% in the south) are illiterate, there needs to be plenty of time to explain how people could choose their candidates for no fewer than 12 layers of government. Yet, extraordinarily, it was only last week that the British government, as a guarantor of the CPA, promised £8m ($13m) for “civic education” in the elections. Many Sudan-watchers say it is too little, and four years too late.
Confidence that the polls will change anything for the better is draining away. It is now almost certain that the elections will be only for the national presidency and maybe for the 25 state governorships. A wider range of polls would now be too tricky to arrange. So rudimentary are preparations in most of the country that the turnout may be very low. In Darfur, the biggest centre of opposition to Mr Bashir, 2m-odd internally displaced people living in huge refugee camps will probably fail to register for fear they may lose the right to vote in the villages from which they have been evicted. In rebel-held areas no one will be able to vote. So it will by no means be a full-scale national election.
All this suits Mr Bashir and his ruling NCP very nicely. It will help ensure that what voting does take place in the north will not be fair. In addition, a draconian national security law giving the government sweeping powers of arbitrary arrest and detention has not been repealed. Most foreign governments have quietly written off any chance of a normal election. Instead, they hope—in the jargon of Western election monitors—that it will be merely “credible” rather than “free and fair”.
The SPLM must share the blame for this sorry state of affairs. It has given up its ambitious idea of promoting a genuinely national electoral strategy, which could have seen the southern movement leading a broad alliance of all of Sudan’s oppressed ethnic groups—in Darfur, in the south and in the east—against the ruling NCP in Khartoum. That was the sort of grand coalition envisaged by John Garang, the SPLM’s long-time leader, and it might well have unseated President Bashir. But Mr Garang was killed in a helicopter crash soon after the CPA was signed; his punier successors have failed to establish national credentials beyond their southern constituencies, and have been concerned merely to stagger through to their own referendum on independence in 2011.
So the northerners of the NCP and the southerners of the SPLM will probably work solely to maintain Sudan’s corrupt status quo. Mr Bashir seems likely to keep his throne. But the other Sudanese, especially in the battered west and marginal east, will once again find themselves woefully lacking in true representation.
The SPLM will then direct its focus on the referendum of 2011, in the hope that the south will secede and it will emerge as ruler of a new country rising from the ashes of half a century of turmoil. There is still a chance, especially if the north manages to get the lion’s share of oil in the disputed border areas, that it will happen. However messy, it would be a remarkable achievement. But whether the SPLM would then do a good job is increasingly doubtful.