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Page last updated at 23:12 GMT, Friday, 2 April 2010 00:12 UK

Analysis: Sudan's guessing game

By Zeinab Badawi
BBC News, Khartoum

Women walk past election poster in Khartoum
The future of Sudan's elections has been thrown into doubt

The only safe thing to say about Sudan's elections is one never knows what might happen next.

Many of the major parties have withdrawn from the presidential election, or are threatening to, just days before voting is due to start on 11 April.

The crisis was triggered by the withdrawal of the main opposition candidate in the presidential poll, Yasser Arman, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM).

Mr Arman, who heads the northern sector of the SPLM and lives in Khartoum, is a paradox.

A northern Arabic-speaking Sudanese from the same tribe as President Omar al-Bashir, he married into a prominent Southern Sudanese family and was a close ally and fighter in the bush with the late SPLM leader John Garang.

Mr Arman's electoral strength lies in his appeal, therefore, to both north and south; he has also drawn large crowds whilst campaigning in Darfur.

Surprise announcement

His announcement was unexpected - taking even some of his SPLM officials by surprise.

Strictly speaking, the SPLM is not part of the opposition: it is a member of the government of national unity and its leader is Salva Kiir, who is the First Vice-President of the whole of Sudan, as well as being president of the autonomous government of southern Sudan.

Mr Arman's reasons for withdrawing? He claims the poll in Darfur is being rigged in favour of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).

Supporters of other parties, he says, are being disenfranchised through difficulties in registering and having to walk long distances to reach a polling booth.

Former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi
Sadiq al-Mahdi's Umma party warns it may quit the presidential poll

He accuses the NCP of using the state's resources in its campaign, of exploiting the state of emergency in Darfur to give the NCP and Mr Bashir an unfair electoral advantage.

Mr Arman claims that his party and others contesting the elections are not allowed to venture out of the three major cities of Darfur, Neale, Geneina and al-Fasher.

In Darfur the rebel groups who've been fighting the government have been pressing for the poll to be delayed. Mr Arman has also hinted that a delay in the poll, until later his year, for instance in November, would be welcome, to allow time for these differences to be ironed out.

He vigorously denies making any deal with the NCP to pull out and pave the way for a Bashir victory in the poll. The NCP, for its part, insists the run-up to the election has been free and fair and rejects his claims of vote-rigging.

Mr Arman has been conferring with the main northern opposition parties, like the Umma Party led by Sadiq al-Mahdi - another presidential challenger. Back in 1989 Mr Mahdi (scion of the family of the Mahdi who had defeated General Gordon) had been removed as prime minister by the coup led by Mr Bashir.

Inducements

The NCP has been holding discussions with the other parties and is trying to encourage them not to boycott the elections. But it has little to offer.

It is believed it may try to induce them into participating by promising roles in a presidential council to some of those party leaders who make a strong showing at the ballot box - that is assuming Mr Bashir wins.

US President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan, General Scott Gration, arrived in Sudan on 1 April to hold emergency talks with the major players, trying to persuade them not to boycott the poll.

The US administration and the international community at large see these elections as a critical step in securing the future of Sudan. They are also a crucial part of a peace deal signed in 2005 between the north and the south.

By the evening of 2 April, the opposition parties and the SPLM, operating under an alliance known as the National Consensus, had not yet decided whether to boycott the entire election - though one senior political source has intimated this might yet happen - and soon.

Disenfranchised

These are complex elections: not only are the Sudanese meant to be electing a president, there are also elections for the national parliament, state assemblies and governorships.

Grassroots activists and supporters had been keen to see elections go ahead at all levels - they have after all invested much time, energy and money in them. Around 15 million people of an electorate of 19 million have registered to vote. (The population of Sudan is around 40 million.)

So if they are disenfranchised after raised expectations, this may yet create some resentment among the parties' rank and file.

There are 79 parties contesting these elections, only nine of which have any electoral significance. The only major party not to have pulled out yet is the Popular Congress Party led by Hassan al-Turabi - who is fielding a Muslim southern Sudanese Abdullah Deng as presidential candidate.

So it would now seem that the only two main parties in the presidential race are the ruling National Congress and the Popular Congress Party - both of which have Islamist agendas - not much of a choice at the ballot box.

According to Mr Arman the aim of the boycott is to rob Mr Bashir of the opportunity to legitimise his rule. There are no opinion polls in Sudan, but many observers believe Mr Bashir would win the presidential election, even if the race had become increasingly tight.

For 20 years Mr Bashir has been head of state, but now his indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur hang around his neck like a millstone. The UN says 300,000 have died in the conflict and two million have been displaced.

Mr Bashir was indicted last spring and earlier this year the ICC even left open the possibility that he might yet face charges of genocide. The president has been campaigning vigorously in the run up to the vote, travelling all over the Sudan, north, south, east and west.

The vote for president is rapidly becoming a plebiscite on Mr Bashir.

President's choices

Now the president is in a dilemma. How should he respond to the boycott? So far no official word, except one presidential adviser, Ghazi Salahuddin, who has been quoted as saying the vote will go ahead and that the US special envoy, General Gration, had offered no solution to the impasse.

But if the NCP goes ahead with the poll, it would be as though Mr Bashir were almost running against himself. Hassan al-Turabi's party does not command widespread support and though Mr Turabi is a national figure, his presidential candidate, Abdullah Deng, is not. Clearly a victory in such circumstances would not confer any legitimacy on Mr Bashir.

Though few expect violence, if the main opposition parties up the ante and play their trump card of a total boycott of the elections, it may push the government of Mr Bashir into a tight corner and set Sudan on a new path of uncertainty and instability

And the dozens of international election monitors already in the country would be hard pressed to monitor an election in which all the main opposition candidates and parties had withdrawn. Yet, if there is a strong turnout, Mr Bashir could point to this as an endorsement of his rule.

If on the other hand Mr Bashir postpones the election, he risks looking weak, as though he had capitulated to the opposition's demands. So Mr Bashir is caught between a rock and a hard place.

One senior Western diplomat has said that if the entire election is boycotted this would throw huge doubt on Sudan's future, especially relations between the North and South. After decades of civil war, a peace deal, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), was signed in January 2005.

These elections were due to be held as part of that deal, which in turn would pave the way for a referendum in January 2011 offering the people of Southern Sudan the chance to become an independent nation.

Partners in peace

If the leading political movement in the south, the SPLM, is now at loggerheads with the government of Mr Bashir over these elections, how can they be partners in peace?

A senior source within the SPLM has gone further and suggested that the NCP intends to postpone the referendum and will cite technical obstacles as justification, like a lack of agreement on demarcating the border between North and South Sudan.

He warns that if this happens this could unleash unrest and renew the civil war between the two parts of Sudan. This would be no light matter - the conflict, Africa's longest running, saw two million die, through war, famine and disease. It led to around five million internally displaced people and refugees.

The country is now at a crossroads.

Though few expect violence, if the main opposition parties up the ante and play their trump card of a total boycott of the elections, it may push the government of Mr Bashir into a tight corner and set Sudan on a new path of uncertainty and instability, and unravel what peace dividends have accrued since 2005.



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