Sudan elections highlight north-south divide

The joke circulating around the Sudanese capital before Sunday’s elections suggested that the only billboard campaign competing with President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir came not from an opposition candidate but from a flashy nonalcoholic beer.

The president’s inescapable image foreshadows what is likely to unfold over two days of voting: the ruling National Congress Party consolidating power amid an opposition boycott that challenges the credibility of the nation’s first serious multiparty elections in 24 years.

“This poll is illegitimate,” said Haj Hamad, director of a firm that teaches nonviolence. “The whole thing’s manipulated, so how can it be fair?”

The elections are certainly about keeping Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on war crimes charges in the Darfur conflict, ensconced in the presidential palace. But they also will affect the anticipated power play that could lead to the breakup of this beleaguered country.

The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which controls the south and is Bashir’s strongest competitor, is partially boycotting the national and regional elections to concentrate on a 2011 referendum on southern independence. The vote is part of the 2005 peace accord that ended two decades of civil war between rebels and the central government in Khartoum.

“The SPLM is only focusing on independence,” Hamad said. “This is foolish politics with a lack of vision.”

But it is a reaffirmation that the divisions between the largely Muslim north and the mainly Christian and animist south appear unbridgeable. More than 2 million people died in the civil war, and the south, a restive landscape of clans, oil and suspicions, is trying to suppress the north’s influence as it rebuilds.

Abdallah Adam Khater had hoped the elections would begin to solve the country’s many problems, especially the conflict in Darfur, which has left about 300,000 people dead in recent years. The analyst and writer now wonders, however, whether the country is capable of moving forward.

“I thought this election would be very important to the Sudanese and the continent itself, at least to show that we could stand together,” he said. “My friends say I’m too optimistic, and in reality this election will be very weak. Although I registered to vote, I thought, ‘What’s the use in an election that’s predetermined?’ ”

The SPLM and other opposition parties announced their boycotts this month. They accused the National Election Commission of fraud and registration violations in balloting that will select the president, governors and members of parliament, in addition to a president in the south.

“These elections are rejected by all parties and the results will also be rejected,” said Sadig al Mahdi, of the opposition Umma Party.

On Saturday, the election commission sought to dispel the mix of anger and apathy on the eve of voting. It denied accusations of corruption and said the government’s commitment to “free and fair polling” would be monitored by 840 foreign observers.

“We have done our best to be as professional as possible,” said Abdallah Ahmed, the commission’s deputy chairman. “We are aware that there are no perfect elections. This one will not be perfect. . . . Mistakes and errors may happen, but they won’t be intentionally made.”