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To observe or not to observe?

April 9, 2010

SUDAN-ELECTIONS/This is likely to be the question hotly debated in the more self-aware international observer missions covering Sudan’s elections, due to start on Sunday and marred by a wave of boycotts and claims of fraud.

Sudan’s first multi-party polls in almost quarter of a century had promised to be fiercely contested until revelations of irregularities caused boycotts by several parties.

The two largest parties and incumbent President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s only real two contenders both withdrew, saying the ruling party had fixed the polls.

As evidence of fraud continued to emerge, the use of government presses to print presidential and gubernatorial ballot papers, and voter registration books was the final straw. The boycotts have raised serious questions about the credibility of the presidential polls especially.

Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, had hoped to win legitimately, in defiance of the warrant.

This week Sudanese civil society groups asked the international observer missions from the Arab League, African Union, China, Japan and the European Union among others to leave, saying they served only to legitimize a flawed election.

They all arrived in time to observe the voting and counting, while the Sudanese activists said the major fraud began with a flawed 2008 census, demarcating the constituencies followed by the voter registration last year. 

The Sudanese observers give examples like a tiny village in the east called Haya, with only a few houses, which under the census was given a population the same as the metropolis of Port Sudan, the capital of the region. These quirks, they say, the newly arrived observers cannot assess.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter arrived in Khartoum to lead the only long-term observer mission from the Carter Center on Thursday. He reminded reporters there were thousands of other candidates in the state and national assemblies and gubernatorial elections who were stilling hoping for a competitive election.

“We are hoping and praying it will be a fair and honest election, at least for the ones who are participating. You have to remember there are about 16,000 candidates who are still involved in the election,” he said.   

His visit had been overshadowed by Bashir’s threats to cut off the fingers and tongues of his observers who had recommended a short delay to the polls to overcome logistical problems. But after an apologetic speech by the Sudanese president, Carter was happy to come.
Sudanese have their own idea of observing elections, whether they be national or more local:  They send several monitors whose job it is to monitor each other, and eat, drink and sleep outside the room housing the ballot box until the results come in.

And even that they have found is not always enough. In the University of Khartoum student union elections in the early 1990s, only after the results did whistle blowers help Sudanese figure out that the ruling party had entered through a hidden door in the wall of the voting centre to stuff the ballot box.

The technical form filling and random sampling methods used by international observers are alien to their ears. The Carter Center will have 60 observers and the largest EU mission just 130 in Africa’s largest country. 

The EU mission has already withdrawn from Darfur, saying it could not work effectively given the continuing conflict there.

Sudanese observers say they will equally not be able to fully cover the 10,000 voting centres and more than 13,000 voting points in the million square miles of territory where people will vote for at least three days. 

They say they were relying on the political party agents to help with monitoring. But the boycotts by the major parties they were counting on ironically mean the process is now even more vulnerable to manipulation.

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