KHARTOUM, (Reuters) – Activists warned on Saturday on the eve of Sudan’s historic elections of widespread misdeeds threatening to mar a vote that had been hoped would give Sudan new democratic legitimacy and help end decades of conflict.
“Violations of human rights – particularly restrictions on freedom of assembly and freedom of the press – are threatening prospects for a free, fair and credible vote across Sudan,” said Georgette Gagnon, Africa Director of Human Rights Watch. “Sudanese authorities are clearly failing to uphold international standards,” said Gagnon, one of a broad group of international activists who warned of renewed violence.
Much is at stake in the country’s first multi-party vote in a quarter-century, as Sudan struggles to find stability after decades of internal violence, combats deep poverty and seeks to re-establish itself as a credible player on the world stage.
Yet the three-day polls are widely expected to cement the power of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who in 2009, 20 years after taking power in a coup, became the first sitting world leader to be indicted by the International Criminal Court, for allegedly plotting war crimes in Sudan’s western Darfur region.
Bashir has promised the elections, which begin on Sunday, will be “free and fair”. His party officials criticise the opposition, much of which has pulled out of the poll, saying it is trying to cover up its inability to win votes. He had hoped credible elections, in which voters will select a new president, a leader of the largely autonomous southern region, parliaments, and leaders of 25 states, would enhance his world standing as he defies the ICC ruling. That looks less likely after leading parties’ last-minute withdrawal, including the powerful Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), over allegations that Bashir has manipulated voter rolls and packing the electoral commission with loyalists. “These elections were born not as something that could strengthen democracy,” Yasir Arman, the SPLM candidate who had been Bashir’s chief rival, said at a news conference on Friday in which he and other boycotting politicians levelled a long list of fraud charges against Bashir’s government. “We can say that these elections will be still-born,” he said.
As the elections draw near, such analysis is becoming more widespread. On Friday, the Obama administration said conditions in Sudan, including U.N. reports of restrictions on free speech and association, harassment of the press and limits on access to polling stations, particularly in Darfur, were “disturbing”.
Contradicting comments by its Sudan envoy in Khartoum, it said it would consider supporting a brief delay to the elections — even though Sudanese election officials have repeatedly said this is out of the question.
The European Union has pulled its observers out of Darfur, where the United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died since 2003 in a humanitarian crisis that has been labelled genocide by Washington. Arman called on the Carter Center, which has sent observers across the country, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, to do the same.
Carter, after meeting with Bashir in Khartoum, said he hoped that “the decisions of individual voters will be expressed freely without intimidation as the cast their ballot, and that the results will be tabulated honestly and fairly.”
Opposition politicians have joined external activists in warning that human rights violations could worsen if the elections begin as planned on April 11. “If elections are to take place in such compromised environment, conflicts about the legitimacy of the results might spark violence,” the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies said in a statement.
Polarization ahead of the polls may bode poorly for longevity of the 2005 peace deal that ended a Sudan’s long north-south civil war. A key part of the deal is a referendum, planned for January 2011, which would give voters in south Sudan the chance to decide if they desire independence.
If the referendum is delayed, the south could secede anyway and risk destabilizing the rest of east Africa. The United Nations, which is advising local elections officials, said a credible vote was “of paramount importance.” “The elections should contribute to the opening of political space in Sudan ahead of the January 2011 referenda,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement.