Sudan’s imperfect but important elections

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On Monday, the results of the April 11-15 elections in Sudan were announced: The ruling party’s President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir won 68% of the vote.

Despite being opposed in advance and severely condemned by many critics, these elections will permit this war-torn nation to move toward a permanent peace and strengthen its quest for true democracy.

Among the more than 75 challenged or troubled elections monitored by the Carter Center, the Sudanese vote was by far the most complex and difficult. Sudan is a huge country, about 1,200 miles long and 800 miles wide. There were more than a dozen political parties and a number of independent candidates. About 15,000 individuals ran for local, state and national offices, which required eight separate ballots in the north and 12 in the south. Sudan’s civil war, which went on for almost a quarter of a century, ended only in 2005. Sudan had not had a real election for 24 years, and it remains deeply divided by tribal, ethnic, religious and political differences.

The Carter Center observers, some of whom have been in Sudan since 2009, were present in all 25 states in Sudan. We saw the generally orderly polling we’d hoped for, and voters turned out in good numbers. However, as we expected, notable flaws in the process prevented the election from meeting strict international standards. Still, the elections fulfilled an important, required step on the way to full implementation of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the civil war in 2005 and which calls for a referendum in 2011 on whether the south will become an independent nation.

A few opposition party leaders decided, after the campaign period was over, not to participate in the elections. The National Election Commission reminded us that it was past the deadline for any legal withdrawal, so all candidates remained on the ballots. This gave voters an opportunity to express their preferences in all races. There were three basic reasons expressed to us by party leaders for withdrawing from the elections: to prevent Bashir’s defeat, which might have caused widespread violence and an end to the peace agreement and the South Sudan referendum; to avoid an embarrassing defeat for former top officials who had aroused little support during their campaigns; and to discredit the process and avoid legitimizing the victory of Bashir, against whom an arrest warrant has been issued by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Two major problems on the ground involved voters lists and the location of polling stations. Voter lists were based on a faulty census and modified by translation back and forth in two languages before final printing and late promulgation (just before election day). The number of voting sites was reduced to 16,500 from 21,200, which meant an average of 1,000 registered voters were assigned to each site. It was difficult for many voters to find their names on voter lists and to find their polling places. The National Election Commission extended the voting time from three to five days to help alleviate these problems. We obtained an electronic copy of the complete voters list and will attempt to determine whether any of the logistical problems were designed to shape the outcome of the elections.

Lastly, there were some observer reports of intimidation, especially in the south, and of serious irregularities and a lack of transparency in the vote tabulation process.

With some exceptions, the elections were relatively peaceful, calm and orderly. The people of Sudan and about 100,000 dedicated poll workers are to be congratulated for completing a campaign and election cycle under the most difficult circumstances. It is imperative that the United States and the international community remain deeply involved in Sudan, insisting that all elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement be implemented. This is the only hope for a long-suffering and courageous people, including those in Darfur, who have had at least a partial taste of freedom, peace, and democracy.

Former President Jimmy Carter is founder of the not-for-profit Carter Center. He was in Sudan during the voting.