Sudan politics: Trade-off?


The decision of the ruling party of Southern Sudan to pull its candidate out of the national presidential election, while continuing to campaign for seats in the National Assembly, seems to have been taken with one eye on next year’s scheduled referendum on southern independence. Smoothing the way for a first-round victory for the incumbent president, Omar al-Bashir, could work to the southerners’ advantage, but they also run the risk of scuppering the entire north-south peace accord if the elections do not go ahead.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) announced on March 31st that its political bureau had decided to withdraw its candidate, Yasir Arman, from the presidential election, which is due to take place between April 11th and 13th along with elections to the National Assembly in Khartoum, presidential and parliamentary elections in the south and elections for provincial governors and assemblies. The SPLM said that it would contest all of the other elections other than in the western province of Darfur. Riek Machar, the deputy head of the SPLM, said that the movement had decided to withdraw Mr Arman owing to concerns about voting irregularities and about the continued conflict in Darfur. However, the SPLM has not clarified why, in light of these concerns, it is still planning to participate in the national parliamentary election.

Following the SPLM’s announcement all of the other opposition parties except the Islamist Popular Congress Party, headed by Hassan al-Turabi, said that they too were withdrawing their candidates. The National Electoral Commission had approved ten candidates; now just two are likely to contest the election. There is now an increased risk that the entire election progress will be undermined, particularly if the SPLM and the opposition parties widen their boycott to encompass the parliamentary and regional elections.


Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) had asked the SPLM at the start of the year not to contest the national presidential election as a quid pro quo for the NCP staying out of the southern presidential contest, which is expected to be won easily by the incumbent, Salva Kiir, the leader of the SPLM. The SPLM initially ignored this request for reciprocity. As a further inducement, the NCP approved a 40-seat increase of the allocation for southern representatives in the 450-member National Assembly, based on the findings of the 2008 census. This was significant as it increased the southern share of seats above the 25% threshold required to veto legislation on constitutional matters.

After official campaigning for the elections started in mid-February, Mr Arman and other opposition candidates (notably Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Umma party, whose government was overthrown by Mr Bashir in a coup in 1989) complained that the incumbent was unfairly using state resources to promote his campaign, in particular through its control of much of the media. Nevertheless, the opposition challenge appeared to be strong enough to have a chance of pushing the contest to a second round, which would have been likely to have pitted Mr Bashir against Mr Arman. The SPLM candidate would have been assured of strong support in the south, and, as a Muslim with roots in the north, he could have bolstered his tally with a moderate chunk of northern votes. A second round would have provided the opposition with the opportunity to rally behind Mr Arman, offering the prospect of an upset. Such an outcome would have been fraught with risks for the SPLM, as it is unlikely that Mr Bashir or the military would have accepted it. The priority for the SPLM is to safeguard the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) of 2005, which brought to a close three decades of ruinous civil war between north and south (and within the south) and which provides the basis for eventual southern independence.

Devil they know

The SPLM leadership seems to have concluded that their best course of action is to allow Mr Bashir to win a facile victory in the first round of the presidential election—which he is likely to obtain now that Mr Arman has withdrawn—and to trust in his professed commitment to go ahead with the referendum on the future of the south. It is important for the SPLM to contest the National Assembly election as a means to ensure that the legislature cannot make constitutional changes that might affect the implementation of the CPA. Mr Bashir has also made clear that the SPLM cannot expect the referendum to go ahead if the movement boycotts the parliamentary election. The SPLM’s decision to boycott the elections in Darfur (both local and national) should not make a big difference to the southern movement’s overall performance as the apportioning of seats in Darfur—which accounts for about one-fifth of the total—has been done in such a way as to heavily favour the NCP.

Referendum ahead

If the elections do go ahead on schedule—which is by no means certain—Sudan’s political parties will turn their attention to the referendum on southern secession, which is due in January 2011 but is likely to be delayed on technical grounds until late in that year. In a free vote, southerners will almost certainly vote for independence (although fraud and intimidation could limit turnout to below the required threshold of 60%). As this reality is accepted on both sides, either a transitional framework for secession will be agreed, including a continuation of the mutually beneficial oil revenue sharing agreement—by which oil produced in the south is exported through northern pipelines and terminals—or the referendum will lead to a renewal of civil war with a focus on control of the oilfields (which the government in Khartoum, the capital, should be able to hold). In either case, there will be a risk of conflict in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State—regions that are geographically in the north but that contain large populations that were allied with the SPLM in the civil war. A third region, Abyei, will probably choose to join Southern Sudanin a parallel referendum also mandated by the CPA. The SPLM leadership seems to be banking on Mr Bashir to deliver on his pledge to uphold the CPA. Some of the southern movement’s supporters have indicated that they are not so sure.