Page last updated at 12:04 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 13:04 UK

Sudan's historic election own-goal

SPLM supporter waving a flag ahead of elections
Many of Sudan's opposition groups have boycotted the polls in the North

By James Copnall
BBC News, Khartoum

Sudan's elections risk going down in the history books for all the wrong reasons.

The three-day polls starting on Sunday had been trumpeted as the first genuine multiparty elections in the country since 1986 - a vote that would achieve, in the much-used phrase, a "democratic transformation."

President Omar al-Bashir's military rule, established by a coup in 1989, would give way to a government that reflects the will of the people.

The poll was part of the 2005 peace deal which ended more than two decades of conflict between the mainly Muslim north and the south where most people are Christian or follow traditional religions.

But a succession of withdrawals by political heavyweights, aghast at alleged rigging, has leached much of the credibility from the elections.

If we elect the same party again... everyone who doesn't look like Bashir will not be welcome
Sojoud, first-time voter

The former southern rebels, the SPLM, announced they would boycott the presidential elections, along with legislative and local polls in most of the north.

They were followed by a number of northern opposition candidates and parties.

Then, after days of deliberations, Umma, a major opposition party with history and current clout, announced its own boycott.

The party will contest a few votes, particularly in its central heartlands.

But it withdrew its leader Sadiq al-Mahdi from the presidential race, and its candidates from parliamentary and state elections up and down the country.

President Bashir no longer has to face his two greatest threats, Mr Mahdi and Yassir Arman of the SPLM.

The most credible men standing against him, Abdallah Deng Nhial of the Popular Congress Party, and Hatem al-Sir of the Democratic Unionist Party, are not even the leaders of their own parties.

'Complex election'

President Bashir's electoral victory seems assured.

His party should do well too, in the north, despite opposition from the DUP in particular.

Sudanese pass under billboard of President Omar al-Bashir
President Omar al-Bashir is expected to win the elections

In the semi-autonomous south, where the SPLM is taking part, it is widely expected to retain power.

Meanwhile in Darfur, where a low-level civil war continues, there will be no voting in large areas, and hundreds of thousands of displaced people are not even registered to vote.

Many Sudanese voters know what to expect.

"There is no confusion here, we all know Bashir is going to win. Now there is no competition, he is going to win by default," says Sojoud, a first-time voter.

"But if we elect the same party again, the country is going to break up, and we are going to have a country with one race and one religion, and everyone who doesn't look like Bashir will not be welcome.

Africa's biggest country
Deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines
11 April elections intended to be first multi-party national poll for 24 years
Continuing conflict in Darfur
President Bashir wanted for war crimes in Darfur
South Sudan rebuilding after 21 years of civil war
South Sudan could secede in 2011
Large oil fields near north-south border

"But I don't have any options, because all the people I could have voted for have withdrawn, they are cowards!"

Others believe the boycotts show the lack of quality of those who oppose the president.

"We have many parties who are weak in their structure and their ideas, they can't convince the people," says Rachid, who intends to vote for President Bashir.

"That will give strength to President Bashir's National Congress Party."

To further complicate matters, the elections are "some of the most complex and challenging on record," according to the UN.

In the north, people will vote eight times, and in the south 12.

Most will never have voted before, and with high illiteracy rates, it is likely there could be a lot of spoilt ballot papers.

"This could make problems, because many of the voters who vote in an incorrect way will think there has been cheating when their candidate doesn't win," says Abubaker al-Magzou, a journalist for Ajras al-Horraya newspaper.

Stepping stone

With President Bashir and his party prohibitive favourites, the interest in the election is no longer really in the result.

Instead, Sudanese and international observers will seek to find out if the polls are really as rigged as the opposition, and human rights activists, have claimed.

The international community is saying to the Sudanese people: 'Shut up! We don't want to hear your voices'
Hala al-Karib

Human rights activist

The reaction of the international community will be interesting too.

President Bashir wants recognition and legitimacy, both at home and abroad.

Many major parties opposed to the president have pulled out; and if the elections are very obviously unfair, will the world consider President Bashir democratically elected?

Election observers are here from a dizzying range of countries and organisations: China, Malaysia, the Arab League, the African Union (all seen as broadly in support of President Bashir); the EU and the Carter Centre (perceived to be critical).

President Bashir's campaign-trail rhetoric has been fiery: he warned observers could have their fingers cut off if they asked for a postponement.

A Sudanese woman stands in front of an electoral picture of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum
The withdrawal of so many parties is a serious blow to the poll's credibility

He has however been incredibly active, travelling around the country - including the south, which fought against him for so many years - making development promises everywhere he went.

The opposition have not been as busy.

But Mr Mahdi did acknowledge the benefits of the campaign.

"The margin of freedom was extended, so much so that we did consider very seriously contesting these elections," he said.

"If it is compared to previous elections under dictatorship in Sudan, it looks rosier."

Some, including the head of the EU observer mission, Veronique de Keyser, hope these elections are a stepping stone to greater democracy in the country.

Even when she announced she was withdrawing her observers from Darfur she was keen to make this point.

But some are less optimistic, and suggest the international community is essentially colluding with President Bashir and the SPLM to move past the elections and on to next January's referendum on whether the south should secede.

"We feel the international community is saying to the Sudanese people: 'Shut up! We don't want to hear your voices here,' says human rights activist Hala al-Karib.

"It's not going to change the situation at all, it's very short-sighted."

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