Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sudan's Elections Going Awry

Of all the nearly two dozen African elections this year, none is more important in its implications for U.S. policy toward Africa than the one this coming weekend in Sudan in which a national president, a southern president, governors, national and local assembly representatives will be chosen. Unfortunately, these elections have been going in the wrong direction since their inception, and the United States and other members of the international community have abetted a skewed process that is likely to anoint an accused mass murderer as the legitimate leader of this East African giant.

The Carter Center, not known for its rigorous criticism of flawed elections around the world, is the lead organization observing the Sudan elections. Even they stated that the “possibility of a genuinely open, inclusive and secure campaign environment” had been undermined by the government’s actions. Human Rights Watch said both the ruling National Congress Party and the Government of Southern Sudan have put in jeopardy the fairness and credibility of the elections by limiting freedom of expression and assembly, while intimidating journalists and providing unequal access to the media. The International Crisis Group calls the Sudan electoral process “fundamentally flawed” and considers the elections rigged.

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir two weeks ago threatened to dismember observers, according to one report, but he has since eased his tone in recent days and has offered observers total access to polling places across the country. Why the change in tone? Apparently, Bashir smells victory and wants it as untainted as possible. After all, why spoil your coronation when everything is going your way in an election you need to legitimize yourself?

A few days ago, all the leading presidential contenders withdrew from the election. Yasir Arman, the candidate of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement and the strongest challenger to Bashir, pulled out after internal party struggles over contesting a troubled election when southern Sudanese leadership is really focusing on next year’s referendum on independence for the South. Although Arman cited election irregularities as his reason for dropping out, he apparently also was increasingly seen as a traitor in his native northern Sudan for running as the presidential candidate of the leading party of the largely Christian South.

Arman was quickly followed in his withdrawal by other leading presidential candidates, including Sadiq al-Mahdi of the Umma Party, Ibrahim Nagud of the Communist Party and Hatem al-Sir of the Democratic Unionist Party. There are now only five candidates running against Bashir, and they are all from small parties with little chance of gaining significant percentages of the vote. Consequently, talk of a runoff election has faded. Some, like Arman’s party, will contest races at other levels of government, but some are withdrawing from the elections altogether.

The Umma Party had particularly attempted to obtain an election postponement in order to correct flaws in the process, but they received little support from the international community. Haile Menkerios, the head of the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS), as recently as late last month continued to call for Sudan elections to be carried out on time and emphasized that any decision to delay the elections should be made by the Sudan government and the election officers it has appointed. Needless to say, their decision was to go forward with the elections regardless of the problems that exist.

While a U.S. State Department spokesman acknowledged that Sudan opposition leaders have “legitimate concerns” about the election process, General Scott Gration, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, has been much more accepting of the electoral process. He said he expects credible elections despite the longstanding criticism of the process and the withdrawal of the major presidential candidates. “They (electoral commission members) have given me confidence that the elections will start on time, and they would be as free and fair as possible,” Gration said in Khartoum.

As I have stated in an earlier blog, when an election is rigged in advance, there is no need for election-day manipulation. It is clear that Sudan’s election process is out of kilter, and the withdrawal of candidates is an indication that the opposition understands that the game is fixed. Therefore, allowing a dishonest government to set the terms in advance is negligent at best and predicting an acceptable election is ludicrous.

In 2008, the International Criminal Court indicted Bashir, among others, for alleged human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region. We called their actions genocide. Now we are aiding and abetting Bashir in becoming elected as his country’s president in a race we know is flawed. How will our government and others subsequently say they don’t accept his presidency as legitimate when we are helping him to achieve it?

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