Sudan’s National Elections: A Crisis of Credibility

How do the prospects for democracy look as Sudan prepares for its first national election in 24 years?

March 1, 2010

How do the prospects for democracy look as Sudan prepares for its first national election in 24 years?

Several weeks from implementing the country’s first national election in 24 years, Sudan stands at a crossroads.

The election is a major milestone in its Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which helped bring an end to one of Africa’s longest civil wars.

Yet, with a highly restrictive political environment and with few, if any, institutions independent from the executive office and the ruling party, there is still no indication of a level playing field that allows all actors free access to the political arena.

With time ticking towards the April 2010 election, the ruling party must open up the political space to all key participants. Otherwise, the election will suffer a severe lack of credibility even before it takes place.

Technically, Sudan is ruled by a Government of National Unity compromised of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). In practice, NCP continues to have almost complete control over the North, East and Western parts of the country, in addition to Southern Kordofan.

Official election-related statements by the NCP are often contradictory and have zigzagged between assurances that the elections will be fair and transparent to anti-Western rhetoric that warns against “foreign intervention” (which translates to foreign funding) in the elections.

For instance, the Al Ra’id newspaper ran an article entitled “Foreign Financing and Administration of the Sudanese Election.” Authored by NCP demagogue Mahmood Al Karnaki, it gives a laundry list of all foreign assistance to the administration of elections. The United States is highlighted as giving “the lion’s share” under its “war against terror” programs.

Norwegian Church Aid is noted to be working in the South on media under the European Union’s support and to have had “contributed to elongating the civil war” in the South by giving large support to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army during the war.

The author concludes by saying, “Without transparency, the foreigner is aiming to use his finances, wide experience and tricky political maneuvers to confiscate the right of the nation in its choice for true democracy.”

Through its national press statements, the NCP is trying to appeal to the sentiments of Sudanese people by depicting Western or “foreign” intervention as a sign that the country is under attack — and that they are the party best suited to protecting the country’s sovereignty.

So far, Sudan does not look like a country preparing for its first national elections in 24 years. State institutions that will have a vital role before, during and after the election, such as the police, judiciary, media outlets and the National Electoral Commission (NEC), are not neutral. This is likely to be a lead cause of election-related violence in the coming months.

Newspapers continue to be heavily censored, and there is a complete absence of public campaigning by political parties.

The NCP continues to maintain absolute control over state-owned and independent media. There is no non-partisan, national voter education campaign on TV, radio or the printed press, and competing political parties have no access to these media outlets.

Independent civil society groups in all of the country (except the South) are struggling to conduct voter education and election monitoring trainings due to a clampdown by the state. Restrictions on donors have led to limited disbursement of funds earmarked for election support.

Civil society groups working on voter education report that their work is monitored and restricted. They are expected to report and obtain approval on all activities from the Humanitarian Affairs Commission (HAC).

In North Sudan, there have been incidents where voter education activities have been stopped by HAC or security officials. For instance, voter education talks in Khartoum were halted by security forces — via a last-minute text message — in June 2009.

An organizer said, “We talked to them, trying to convince them that it is very short notice, but they insisted that it be stopped. So, we announced that to our audience of 78 who were there.… It is clear that they don’t want any work on the elections. We have difficult days ahead.”

A female activist who has asked to stay anonymous said, “We are working under an increasingly repressive environment that resembles the early 1990s, when the NCP first came to power. We are losing the basic freedoms that the CPA had granted us.”

Some organizations have pulled back election-related funding out of fear that their other development programs in the region could be endangered.

The complexity of Sudan’s new electoral system and its high illiteracy rates make voter education an urgent matter. A common statement heard from those in civil society and other political parities is that the NCP is “banking on the ignorance of the people.”

Many acknowledge that the main problem with the election will be invalid ballot forms that are filled incorrectly. This puts the NCP in advantage, given that it has been targeting its constituency as early as 2006.

Although Sudan’s forthcoming election is not the magic pill that will cure all the country’s ailments, an election conducted in a transparent and just manner is likely to shift the country away from election-related violence and toward a peaceful transition to democracy.

Takeaways

So far, Sudan does not look like a country preparing for its first national elections in 24 years.

Sudanese newspapers continue to be heavily censored — and there is a complete absence of public campaigning by political parties.

Official election-related statements by Sudan's ruling party have zigzagged between assurances that the elections will be fair and transparent to anti-Western rhetoric that warns against "foreign intervention."