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Confusion rules as Sudan’s elections loom

April 4, 2010

SUDANThese are confusing times in Sudanese politics — so confusing that even the activists are struggling to keep up with the shifting positions of their own parties a week ahead of national elections.

This morning, a spokesman from south Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) called round journalists inviting them to a demonstration in Khartoum.

The grassroots members of the SPLM’s Khartoum branch, he said, would be handing over a memorandum to the party leadership calling on it to end its boycott of Sudan’s looming presidential ballot and reinstate its candidate Yasir Arman.

So far so newsworthy. The SPLM’s decision to withdraw Arman from the presidential race last week, in protest against widespread fraud, sent shockwaves through Sudan’s political scene.

Now the SPLM membership was organising a rally calling for Arman’s return. What did it all mean? A split in the party? A stage-managed event to smooth the way for Arman to change his mind and return to the political fray?

The press corps duly turned up and watched 50 to 60 people waving banners outside one of the SPLM’s Khartoum offices, dancing and chanting “Come back Arman. Come back Arman.”

After about half an hour, it was clear something had gone wrong. Some of the officials inside the party office were egging the rally on, handing out posters. Others were standing round, talking quietly.

Another half hour later, a small delegation of party leaders marched out of the main office, one of them carrying a megaphone.

“We are going to tell these people to move on,” said one. “But they are calling for Yasir’s return. Is there a new position? Is there split in the party,” I shouted after them. “There is no split,” answered one turning round. “These people have just not been briefed properly.”

The SPLM’s candidate for Khartoum governor, Edward Lino, went on to make a 10-minute megaphone speech, listing the reasons that he said justified Arman’s continued withdrawal.

Those included the continuing insecurity in Darfur and the reports of widespread fraud in the preparations for the vote, blamed on the followers of incumbent president Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

The newly briefed crowd took on the new message in minutes. “Come back Arman. Come back Arman” segued quickly into “No, no to fraud, no,no to fraud” An hour later they were back in their bus, flags still waving, heading for home, the presidential boycott still in force.

It might have been an amusing scene, but for its political implications. Western diplomats have told Reuters they are growing increasingly worried that real splits are opening up inside the SPLM and opposition parties in the build up to next Sunday’s election.

Both the opposition Umma and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have appeared to announce total boycotts of elections over the past few days, only to back down sometimes hours later. Party insiders said Umma’s leadership was coming under pressure from grassroots supporters who felt they had invested too much time and money in campaigning to leave.

Now, analysts say, there are signs of a serious split inside the SPLM. One faction, based in the Muslim north, is keen to discredit the elections by keeping Arman out and going further by boycotting all levels of the parliamentary and gubernatorial elections in Sudan’s 15 northern states.

Another faction, based in the south, they say, is keen to keep the elections going, to placate Bashir and make sure he does nothing to disrupt what for them is an even more important vote – a referendum on southern secession due in January 2011.

Any further fragmentation among the parties, worry, diplomats, would only add to the turmoil in Sudan’s already fraught political scene.

There is little doubt that the opposition’s indecision over whether or not to boycott elections has already added to the popular cynicism swirling around the poll.

“The manifest inability of these parties to achieve something so elementary as forging a common front to participate in negotiations over the elections … is dispiriting to say the least,” said Sudanese academic Abd al-Wahab Abdalla in a comment on the blog Making Sense of Sudan.

“The news every day was: the two gentlemen leaders met – but they never decided anything,” housewife Amal Mohamed told Reuters. “Imagine if they can’t agree now, what would they do in government?”

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