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One step forward. How many back?

April 16, 2010

SUDAN-ELECTIONS/Sudan has witnessed the end of what was supposed to be a historic event.

 The first multi-party polls in almost quarter of a century to elect leaders on all levels, including the presidency held by Omar Hassan al-Bashir for 21 years.

But far from joy in the streets or pride in a job well done, there was just a sigh of relief.

Most people’s eyes were on Bashir’s National Congress Party in the north, who were accused of rigging the elections before the five-day vote even began.

But the elections were also a key test of the democratic credentials of the semi-autonomous south, which may become Africa’s newest country in a few months with a referendum on secession.

It’s not clear it passed.

The voting was without major violence, except for hazy reports of the killing of at least five of Bashir’s ruling party officials in the remote south, details of which are yet to be confirmed. In the heavily armed south this relative lack of violence was a major feat.  

But independent and opposition candidates all separately told eerily similar stories of intimidation and harassment of their supporters by security forces. 

Sudanese observers were detained and prevented from working and accusations of vote rigging and threatening behaviour were almost more common in the south than in the north.

The  Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) which fought for democracy and a new, secular Sudan, ironically may have come across worse than their former foes the NCP.

In the north, with a few elections under their belt, the NCP were cleverer, the opposition said, laying the groundwork with a census, drawing of the constituencies and the registration.   

This gave them the confidence to open up an unusual amount of political freedom (by Sudanese standards anyway) in the run-up to the vote.

Opposition leaders debated live on television. A demonstration of 30 young people outside the National Elections Commission did not end with batons and tear gas.

And journalists were allowed free access to polling stations through the country — even the notoriously hard-to-get Darfur travel permits came out in just a day.  

The group Girifna (We’re fed up) at any other time would have been quashed mercilessly and their cadres terrified into submission.

But testament to their courage and the small crack of freedom, they have managed to distribute their orange leaflets educating people how to vote for peaceful regime change.

With the opposition boycott, Bashir will be reelected and the NCP will enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament. So what’s next?

Those keen to see the January 2011 southern referendum through will be looking closely to see if the political scene continues to open up or if a newly elected NCP cracks down on dissent.

Any move to quash the activists and civil society groups which have formed in the past few months will be a key test for the NCP of its willingness to hold a free and fair referendum.

Failure could mean war.

Let’s hope they pass.

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