The Sudan Elections: Endeavoring Democracy in a Most Undemocratic Environment

A prominent belief amongst African leaders today is that the international community will accept your rule as democratic if you hold perceptibly legitimate elections of which you are declared victor. Although elections are arguably the first step to a more representative form of government, one that serves the will of its people, democracy of course is not achieved solely through the organization of elections. Democracy requires the development of a government that protects the human and civil rights of its people and that is guided by a strong system of laws to which no one is exempt. Perhaps even more important, democracy cannot flourish without a deep understanding and acceptance by the general population, as well as by those who seek to lead, of the values it represents. Sudan’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections in April, the country’s first multi-party elections in almost 25 years, demonstrated that the country is moving towards a more democratic political system. However, widespread election fraud, intimidation and harassment of voters by major political parties in the north and the south signify the refusal of the most powerful to accept the possibility of defeat and subsequently to adopt a truly democratic system of governance.

With the referendum on Southern independence fast approaching, the pressure on Bashir’s government and opposition political parties to hold elections—and subsequently fulfill one of their chief obligations under the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005—was immense. It was partly this pressure by the international community to hold elections without delay that undermined their very legitimacy. The push to hold elections resulted in extreme disorganization and confusion, unchecked repression of the opposition, prevalent fraud and a serious lack of inclusiveness. Calls for delay by independent monitoring groups were met with staunch opposition, and not surprisingly, a threat from President Bashir, who vowed to ‘cut off [the monitors’] fingers’ before throwing them out of the country. Rather ironically, because the elections were so wrought with fraud, the international community had no choice but to admit, that even with a two-day extension, the elections had failed to meet international standards.

As it is always the case in Africa prior to elections, reports of election fraud and repression by the Sudanese government began months prior to the elections, during the voter registration period in 2009. A lack of information regarding registration times and locations, ongoing violence in Southern Sudan, the failure to reach millions already displaced in Darfur, and delays in accrediting international election observers, all served as obstacles to ensuring proper voter registration. There were even reports that National Election Commission (NEC) officials had used the same boundary tape used to indicate the presence of landmines to identify registration centers, which caused, to say the least, significant confusion. Although voter registration had its setbacks, the NEC did manage to register over 15 million people, which comprises about 75 percent of the country’s voting age population. This was considered a huge milestone for the country and a significant first step in implementing the CPA, which outlines the requirements for establishing the referendum on Southern independence.

During late 2009, in an attempt to build greater understanding of democratic processes and civil rights, political parties and civic activists began educating and training local populations on the election process. However, security forces were quick to disrupt many of these public meetings. In November and December, it was reported that the government either cancelled, denied permission for or disbanded several election monitoring training sessions in Kassala (eastern Sudan), two public meetings in Kosti, a public speech in support of an independent presidential candidate in Khartoum and dozens of public rallies. With a population that has little to no understanding of democracy or even the simple act of voting, the need for civic education is great. Illiteracy in the South is rampant; much of the population has never even held a pencil, which demonstrates how much of a challenge it is to train the population in the electoral process. The ballot alone had over 12 different parties vying for state, national and sub-national legislative and executive positions as well as the presidency; navigating the form proved confounding for even the most educated of Sudanese. Although assistance was provided to illiterate voters during the actual elections, such minimal support cannot replace the necessity for civic education, which was so often denied by the government in the months leading up to the election. In some instances, the lack of understanding of democratic processes by the local population, coupled with strong feelings of ethnocentrism and tribalism, led to violence. For example, in November, Samson Kawje, Minister of Agriculture for Southern Sudan, while promoting voter registration in the small administrative area of Wondoruba payam, was shot by an armed community member, who was angry over Kawja’s attempt to place the town under the jurisdiction of a neighboring county. This example also demonstrates how the failure to accept compromise and the continued use of violence in response to political change remains a significant obstacle to achieving real democratic reform in Sudan.

In the run up to the elections, campaigning also proved difficult for opposition and independent party candidates. There were hundreds of reports of opposition candidates being harassed, intimidated, arrested or otherwise detained ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections. In Western Bahr el-Ghazal, security forces arrested 14 members of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), then interrogated and beat them. Another 22 were detained by government forces, beaten and then forced to sign an agreement, promising to discontinue all political activities. Southern security forces also targeted NCP members active in the South, as well as any Southern political parties that threatened SPLM’s dominance at the polls. In addition to the repressive tactics employed by both the NCP and the SPLM, Bashir and the NCP possessed an unfair advantage, as they improperly utilized government resources to support their electoral campaign. There were even accusations that the NCP had used UNAMID helicopters to move party members around to campaign. Furthermore, The NCP’s influence over national and local media was unmatched. Although state-owned media had allocated free air time to all parties’ candidates, television and radio campaign coverage in Khartoum primarily focused upon the NCP. In addition, the government continued to obstruct press freedom throughout the country. In March, security forces stormed the offices of Bakhita FM, a community-based radio station run by a Catholic Church and threatened to shut the station down unless it stopped broadcasting political programming. That same month, the privately-owned Liberty FM was raided after broadcasting an interview with an independent politician and also threatened with closure if it continued to broadcast political programming.

Every aspect of Sudan’s election process was wrought with fraud, from the 2008 census (after which the government gerrymandered to favor the NCP) to voter registration, (during which NCP members were arrested on accusations of paying people to register as NCP), and to the actual elections, (during which thousands of SPLA soldiers were reportedly flown around the South to vote, ensuring that SPLM remained the dominant party in each state). Opposition parties were clearly at a disadvantage throughout the election process, and as a result, several parties pulled out of the presidential, parliamentary and governorship races, demanding the government ensure more balanced campaign and media access. Confusion then reigned over partial and full election boycotts announced by the SPLM, the Umma Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The Umma Party’s pull-out perhaps had the largest impact on the elections and their credibility; the Umma Party, which is widely popular, had won the 1986 elections before being ousted by a coup led by current President Bashir in 1989. Opposition parties’ concerns regarding government and NCP fraud were certainly valid. In an environment in which they could not freely campaign or rally supporters, the opposition argued it had little chance of properly contesting the ruling NCP and Bashir, who is vehemently seeking validation in view of being charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the SPLM, and other opposition parties, were also divided in their strategy, questioning whether efforts should be more focused on consolidating the South in preparation of the referendum, or on taking on Bashir and gaining more power in the North. In the end, a coalition of the major opposition parties chose to pull out of both the presidential and legislative races (their names remained on the ballots however due to the short notice), certain that without their participation, the elections and any outcome would be considered illegitimate. The SPLM pulled out of only the presidential race, however. It could not risk jeopardizing its obvious advantage in the South.

The current situation in Sudan leads many to question whether elections can be held in an environment so lacking in basic democratic principles. With the country currently run by a dictator who refuses to cede even the slightest bit of power and who is wanted for the most horrific of war crimes, the expectation of free and fair elections is naïve at best. The results of the election have favored Bashir and the NCP, but it is unlikely Bashir will achieve the legitimacy he so ironically fought so illegitimately for. And what of the opposition? The SPLM, which was so preoccupied with retaining its power, certainly shares in the blame for the failure of the elections. It too employed repressive and fraudulent means to ensure victory, but against such a powerful and unscrupulous adversary, one could argue the SPLM had little to no choice to revert to such means. However, what is troubling is that the SPLM’s behavior during this election is likely indicative of how it will act in any future campaigns.

With widespread repression, fraud and logistical problems reported throughout the electoral process, and the outcome already decided, the results of the election are unlikely to have any impact upon Sudan’s political dynamic. It has been argued that the elections, at best, served as a practice run for the upcoming referendum, but this is a somewhat trivial view of an exercise whose implementation and legitimacy are so crucial to facilitating democracy. If the elections were indeed a test, particularly of the Sudanese’s ability to understand, accept and practice democracy, the Sudanese and the international community have largely failed in achieving this task. Therefore, the International Institute for Justice and Development (IIJD) cannot recognize Sudan’s elections as legitimate. The IIJD maintains strongly that elections must be free and fair in order for their results to be deemed valid. In the case of Sudan, it was apparent from the beginning that the volatility of the political environment would make achieving such a goal nearly impossible. Furthermore, although international election monitors were operating in a very restrictive environment, their assistance in facilitating the elections was largely superficial. International assistance was mostly limited to training local monitors in proper voting procedures and assisting in preparing ballots. The IIJD strongly believes this type of electoral assistance to be wholly inadequate and further maintains that the only way to ensure free and fair elections in a country such as Sudan is to involve the international community and independent international NGOs in from the very beginning of the electoral process.