After being delayed twice, Sudan’s parliamentary and presidential elections are slated for April. These elections are to be the first multi-party ballot held in the country in 24 years and although the situation remains tense, they have the potential to usher in major changes in both the executive and legislative branches.
Preparations for the elections appear to be underway in earnest. A national referendum was conducted in 2009 and voter registration is currently taking place "relatively peacefully," in the words of Susan Rice, the United States ambassador to the United Nations. While a number of problems persist–including the registration of internally displaced persons and accusations of "violations of civil and political rights" from Human Rights Watch–the elections are unlikely to be postponed again.
To date, ten people have declared their candidacy for the presidency, including the incumbent resident Omar al-Bashir, Yassir Arman, a representative of the separatist Sudan’s People Liberation Army/Movement, and, as of last week, al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, who was nominated by a coalition of opposition parties that had threatened to boycott the elections. Al-Mahdi, who leads the Umma Party, was briefly prime minister in the 1960s and then again from 1986 to 1989, when he was ousted in a coup led by al-Bashir. He is viewed as the biggest threat to al-Bashir; leading opposition figure Hassan al-Turabi will sit these elections out.
The opposition’s greatest chance for success is a dispersal of votes that would prevent al-Bashir from winning in the first round of elections, leading to a second round between the sitting president and al-Mahdi. Yet this appears unlikely to happen, and al-Bashir is likely to maintain his hold on the presidency.
But the referendum on self-determination of South Sudan, due to be held in less than a year, appears to be a far more important issue than the presidential election. And other regional problems, particularly Darfur, will rise in the list of presidential debate priorities as al-Mahdi, for whom Darfur is a traditional stronghold, enters the fray.
The presidential election is unlikely to impact the outcome of the referendum among the disenfranchised South Sudanese population; the result seems to have been decided years ago. By 2005, two draft agreements were on the table: one sponsored by the League of Arab States, which encouraged the territorial unity of Sudan, and one sponsored by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), many member states of which were at odds with the Sudanese government and longtime supporters of the separatist SPLA/M. The United States, who had offered military support to the SPLA/M in the 1990s, threw its diplomatic weight behind the IGAD initiative, which was accepted by the Sudanese government–‘encouraged’ by international sanctions and US-led military strikes.
Today all factions seem to have made their peace with idea of an independent South Sudan, including president al-Bashir, who declared during a visit to the South last week that his National Congress Party "will be the first to take note of this decision" and to support a potential choice for secession. This declaration comes after years of maintaining that unity was the only acceptable option. Al-Sadiq al-Mahdi’s electoral program [Arabic] includes "developing the peace agreement by maintaining the rights of the South, correcting its faults, and adding a protocol or a treaty of brotherly relations between the two countries in the event of secession."
The parliamentary elections, however, do have the power to decide on the implementation of the referendum, and to maintain the fragile peace until then and during the transitional phase afterward.
Today, the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement appears to be in danger of falling apart. Skirmishes in the South, encouraged by the flow of weapons, are frequent. The 2008 death toll in the South was higher than in Darfur. The Sudanese parliament is struggling to assert its role maintaining the fragile peace and easing tensions. A bill passed on 29 December governing the format of the independence referendum defused a minor crisis by conceding to Southern demands to allow southerners living in the North to cast their ballot in the South and to curtail the right of some northerners to claim Southern ancestry and vote in the referendum.
The Sudan Electionnaire, a tool developed by German NGO Media in Cooperation and Transition, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Institute in Sudan, and the Institute for Peace Research of the University of Khartoum, determines a list of 30 questions it believes identify the issues affecting "common" Sudanese people in the upcoming parliamentary elections, helping users to determine their position from among the 16 parties in the election. Of those 30 questions, six are directly related to the 2005 peace agreement and the secession of the South. Three more directly concern the competencies and specificity of the Sudanese states within a federal government.
A number of contentious issues may continue to threaten a renewal of hostilities if they go unresolved by the date of the referendum. Southerners residing in the North–and vice-versa–will find themselves in a citizenship mess. A large part of the border area remains to be demarcated, a task further complicated by the fact that many of the country’s oil fields lie within the contested area. Finally, the sharing of oil revenues and the future of the oil industry–with most of the drilling located in the South and refineries in the North–remains the most pressing issue and must be addressed and enshrined in law before next January.
Come April, the parliamentary elections will be far more critical than the presidential one. In part, this is because there are few doubts about the result of the latter, but more importantly because it is the parliament that will have the power to maintain relative calm in Sudan until the likely secession takes place, and to prevent violence in the immediate aftermath. For these reasons, the world should be paying closer attention to Sudan’s parliamentary election.