Sudanese Elections: On the Road to Independence or to Humanitarian Crisis?

Omar Al-Bashir, president of Sudan. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jesse B. Awalt/Released.

On April 11, Sudanese went to the polls for the first time in more than twenty years in a highly anticipated election. The activity leading up to the vote has been arguably more controversial than the election itself. In early April Yasir Arman, the presidential candidate for the Sudan People Liberation Movement (SPLM), announced his intention to boycott the presidential elections, protesting against alleged fraud and instability undermining the elections. The SPLM, which is rooted in Southern Sudan and is the country’s main opposition party, still ran candidates in the parliamentary and municipal elections in the south and in two northern states. Following Arman’s lead, Sudan’s other main opposition parties also withdrew, leaving only smaller party candidates to contest the National Congress Party (NCP) candidate, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

While some observers warned that the candidates’ would foster a violent political environment, experts speculated that the implications of the withdrawal were not as far-reaching as they may have first appeared. Rather, SPLM and residents of Southern Sudan may have understood the elections to be a formality and, instead, remained invested in the 2011 referendum on independence. Still, the elections carried high stakes. Some argued that a boycott of the national elections could be a breach of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, executed between SPLM and the government of Sudan in 2005, jeopardizing the 2011 referendum for Southern Sudanese independence. The elections are pivotal in determining whether Southern Sudan will attain independence in 2011, and the severity of the accompanying political climate.

With the SPLM vigorously vying for independence, the partitioning of Sudan may very well be inevitable. Regardless of the outcome, the international community will need to prepare itself for an escalating humanitarian crisis in Southern Sudan and the country as a whole. Although President Bashir has been scaling back his criticism against independence, there remains a strong possibility that the NCP will try to delay the independence referendum. The south contains two-thirds of Sudan’s oil reserves, with which the government of Sudan is not likely to part without a fight. As the current government has already overseen genocide in Darfur, their potential for violent repression is not to be underestimated.

The international community will have to be just as prepared, if not more so, if Southern Sudan votes for independence in 2011. As representatives from Khartoum have inflicted violence upon Southern Sudan, so too has SPLM. Southern Sudan is rife with corruption, exploitation, disappearances, rape, kidnapping, and murder, often at the hands of SPLM. In the event of southern independence, the governing authority’s practices will need to be monitored to ensure respect for the individual and collective rights of the people of Southern Sudan. Further, the international community may need to assist the southern government with capacity building to help it cope with health, food, and governance issues.

Operating under the responsibility to protect principle, current humanitarian efforts in Sudan have been sharply criticized for implementing oversimplified Western ideals without considering the political and social realities in Sudan. These efforts have been deemed unprepared, focusing their efforts on the day-to-day, rather than on the possibility of an impending humanitarian crisis. Whatever the criticisms, it is vital that the international community prepare, whether by adjusting or by broadening its practices, for the instability and humanitarian repercussions that will likely follow the elections.

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