Voting Begins in Sudan Despite Rigging Accusations and Boycott

[Montréal, Québec, Canada 10°C] Today is election day in Sudan, the first of three days of polling. It is the first multi-party elections in Sudan since 1986, three years before the 1989 coup-d’état that brought Omar al-Bashir’s National Islamic Front – NIF (later renamed the National Congress Party – NCP) party to power.

It has been five years since the end of a 21-year civil war between the government of Sudan and the southern SPLM rebels that killed two million people and displaced more than four million others in Africa’s largest country. According to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the people of Southern Sudan will probably vote in a self-determination referendum in 2010 that is expected to result in a seperation vote.

The detailed results of this week’s elections are uncertain, but Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will almost certainly win the presidency of Sudan and Salva Kiir Mayardit is expected to win the Presidency of Southern Sudan’s semi-autonomous region. But these anticipated results are not without controversy during these elections when votes will be cast for two presidents, 24 governors and 26 state and national assemblies on up to 12 different ballots. The logistical challenges for holding these elections have already shown errors.

Africa correspondent for The Globe and Mail, Geoffrey York, has reported via Twitter that cardboard polling booths tend to blow away in the wind, that some polling stations failed to open on time because polling material had yet to arrive, or had received the wrong polling papers, that some polling stations stayed open three hours longer than planned, and that there is talk of adding a fourth day of polling to the elections.

Reuters reported that “confusion soon erupted on Sunday as centre after centre, sometimes hours into the voting, discovered that voters were using the wrong ballot papers or that names or symbols of candidates were either missing or incorrect.”

(source: SPLM Voices)

Most of the six million registered voters are participating in elections for the first time. With low literacy rates, particularly in the South, Darfur and other mostly-rural regions of Sudan, understanding the process (and the ballot papers themselves) cannot be taken for granted. The Guardian wrote that “the southern president, Salva Kiir Mayardit – himself a first-time voter – had to wait for nearly half an hour for his polling station to open, and then spoiled his first vote by dropping it in the wrong box.”

Concerns of election rigging were detailed in a March 30 policy briefing from the International Crisis Group as well as the consequences of a win by current President Omar al-Bashir, who has an arrest warrant against him for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur by the International Criminal Court.

The report accused the Khartoum government of manipulating the 2008 Fifth Population and Housing Census “by not counting opponents”. The NCP government were also accused of “drawing electoral constituencies to favour its candidates”, by drafting biased election laws, of tampering with voter registration and “the failure of the National Elections Commission (NEC) to properly train its registration officials and to conduct civic education campaigns nationwide.”

The NEC was also under fire for deciding to change the printer of the presidential and gubernatorial ballot papers from a Slovenian firm to the government’s own Sudanese Currency Printing Corporation. Potential tampering of the ballots quickly became a concern, as opposition parties demanded a probe into the ballots.

Government repression of opposition candidates, from both the NCP in the north and SPLM in the south, have been documented.

One day after the release of the ICC policy briefing, the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement withdrew its presidential candidate, Yasir Arman, from the electoral race for Sudan’s presidency because of continued conflict in Darfur and “election irregularities.” The SPLM has since decided to boycott all polling in the 13 states in the north. Other opposition parties have also chosen to boycott the elections. The boycott is designed to delegitimize the expected results of a win for Omar al-Bashir that would be gained by government rigging the electoral process.

The voting is to finish on April 13 (or maybe April 14 if there is an extension) with results scheduled to be declared on April 18.

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