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Monday, 11 December, 2000, 12:04 GMT
Controversial poll boycott in Sudan
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir
The opposition accuses Bashir of dirty tricks before elections
By Caroline Hawley in Cairo

Sudan is pressing ahead with controversial presidential and parliamentary elections this week that all the country's main opposition groups are boycotting.

One diplomat in Khartoum described it as a "re-selection, not an election".

Of the five presidential candidates standing, only two are well-known even in Sudan - President Omar al-Bashir and Jaafar al-Nimeiri, who was overthrown in a popular uprising in 1985.

"The elections are just lipstick they're trying to put on their ugly military face," said human rights activist, Ghazi Suleiman.

Human rights activist Ghazi Suleiman
Ghazi Suleiman: Detained after criticising government
He is now in detention after he criticised the arrest last week of seven members of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

"They're trying to fool the international community and the Sudanese people. But you can't have elections in a totalitarian regime," he said.

Government defiant

The government has defended the decision to go ahead with the voting - which begins on Wednesday and lasts for 10 days - despite calls from the opposition for a postponement.

Jaafar el-Nimeiri
Jaafar el-Nimeiri is one of only two well-known candidates
"We didn't put any obstacles in front of them," the foreign minister, Mostafa Osman Ismail, says.

"They decided freely to boycott."

Mr Ismail says the government had been under pressure to hold new parliamentary elections, after President Bashir dissolved parliament and declared a state of emergency last December in a power struggle with his former ally, Hassan al-Turabi.

Strengthening gambit

Diplomats say the outcome of the vote will strengthen President Bashir against Mr Turabi, who was the main idealogue of his Islamist military government before the two men fell out.

Hassan al-Turabi
Hassan al-Turabi: Lost out in power struggle
The Popular National Congress Party, which Mr Turabi formed in the wake of the split, is not participating in the elections.

Sadiq al-Mahdi, the former prime minister overthrown by President Bashir in 1989, has also refused to take part, despite his Umma party's rapprochement with the government.

Mr Mahdi returned from self-imposed exile late last month, pledging to work for political pluralism and peace.

Not level playing field

But he has described the elections as no more of a contest than having one team on a football pitch.

Former Sudanese prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi
Sadiq al-Mahdi ruled out power-sharing proposals
"I cannot take part in elections under a constitution with which I don't agree," says Mahdi.

"The present constitution has got certain theocratic and totalitarian elements that have to be reviewed.

"The electoral laws also need to be reformed."

Widespread apathy

For many Sudanese, struggling to make ends meet, the elections are a meaningless irrelevance.

"We're hungry," one unemployed man said.

"What we want is food."

Another said: "It'll just be the same faces again. What has Bashir done for us in 11 years?"

Although the outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion, many Sudanese wonder what will happen next.

The foreign minister, Mustafa Osman Ismail, has said there is a "possibility" of new elections, if - as widely expected - turn-out is low.

The government is also trying to woo Sadiq al-Mahdi's Umma party into a coalition.

But Mr Mahdi has said that he "cannot in any way support a totalitarian regime".

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See also:

06 May 00 | Africa
Analysis: Power struggle in Sudan
30 Nov 00 | Africa
Sudan power sharing talks
26 Nov 99 | Africa
Sudan peace deal struck
17 Jan 00 | Africa
Sudan's decades of war
19 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Sudan
24 Nov 00 | Africa
Sudan celebrations continue
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