Bashir Wins Sudan Election. Now What?

Sudan announced today that President Omar al-Bashir won the April 11-15 Sudan election that Critics call a sham. Supporters say it gives the longtime military ruler new legitimacy.

Johannesburg, South Africa – President Omar al-Bashir has won the first democratic Sudan election in 24 years, closing a chapter on his 22 years as the country’s military ruler and potentially opening the way to new legitimacy as a democratically elected leader.

Mr. Bashir won 68 percent of the vote, Sudan’s National Election Commission announced on Monday.

His closest competition was Yasir Arman, a member of the southern-based Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, who withdrew from the race in the final week over concerns about fraud, but still garnered 21 percent of the vote.

In a concurrent election in the semi-autonomous region of South Sudan, SPLM leader Salva Kiir won as that region’s president with 92.9 percent of the vote.

Serious Irregularities

Foreign and local observers noted serious irregularities in the polling, including the buying of votes and the intimidation of opponents, but the elections held from April 11-15 were largely free of violence.

Still, the most crucial moments in the nation’s stability lie ahead, with political reconciliation in the war-torn Darfur region and the possible division of oil resources if the South votes to secede in a 2011 referendum.

“The focus now should be for Sudanese political forces to find a way of achieving political stability,” says Fouad Hikmat, a Sudan expert at the International Crisis Group, based in Nairobi. “The issues this government will face are going to be the same as those faced by the previous government. If Bashir can push for an agenda of peace in Darfur, rather than an agenda of military defeat of the armed groups, if he can bring an element of stability in the border regions of South Kordofan and the Blue Nile state, and if he can implement the full Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the south, then there is a chance for peace.”

Few Surprises

Today’s results brought few surprises.

President Bashir ran with the full backing of state-owned media, and full support of Sudan’s powerful armed forces, and with very little competition, after the withdrawal of Mr. Arman and other key opposition candidates.

Mr. Kiir, who serves as vice president in a powersharing agreement with Bashir, was also widely favored to win in the south, where the SPLM once served as an armed liberation movement in a 20-year civil war with Khartoum.

Yet many African leaders welcomed the results nonetheless, since they signaled a formal end to the power struggle between north and south, which led to the civil war that claimed more than 1 million lives from 1983 until 2005, when a comprehensive peace agreement was signed.

Bashir’s election win served a personal goal as well.

Can Bashir Now Bargain with the ICC?

He was indicted last year by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and Bashir’s supporters hope that his election and his continued support of peace with the south and with the restive Darfur region will give him some bargaining power to delay or cancel any future ICC war crimes trial.

It is for this reason that human rights activists are most critical about these elections, calling them a sham, despite the Sudanese election commission’s apparently state-of-the-art methods for preventing ballot box stuffing.

“This election was decided over the last year, as the census was fixed, the voter registration was fixed, the drawing of voting districts was fixed, and the composition of the electoral commission was fixed,” says John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, an anti-genocide group based in Washington.

“But that wasn’t enough,” says Mr. Prendergast. “The ruling NCP bought support from elders, manipulated voter lists, and tampered with ballot boxes. Any whiff of credibility disappeared long before the election was actually held.”

Roots of the Conflict

Like the ongoing conflict in the Darfur region, the two-decade long civil war in the south began because of Khartoum’s inability or unwillingness to govern or to bring development to the south. The conflict had a cultural aspect as well, pitting the mainly Christian southerners against Arabic-speaking Muslim northerners, a chasm that still remains largely unhealed despite five years of peace.

White House officials last week called the elections “an essential step,” while also pointing out major deficiencies in how the election was carried out.

Yet it is clear that the southern government of President-elect Salva Kiir is intent on pushing secession from the north, a matter that could stir up tensions anew, especially when it comes time to dividing up the rich oil-fields that straddle the boundary areas between the north and south.

“We need to see a new type of government in Sudan,” says Mr. Hikmat of Crisis Group. “If the government has a totalitarian approach, and the opposition is not accommodated, and if there is not a credible process for demarcation of the boundaries between north and south, then there is not going to be stability in Sudan. Compared with the last war, things will be even worse.”