KHARTOUM/JUBA, (Reuters) – South Sudanese officials said on Tuesday poor logistics were preventing hundreds of thousands of southerners from voting in their first election in 24 years, with some early turnout figures below 10 percent.
Voting began on Sunday and had been due to last three days, but authorities announced a two-day extension until Thursday to allow more time for the complex presidential, legislative and gubernatorial polls in Africa’s largest country.
The vote seeks to transform the oil producer, emerging from decades of civil war, into a democracy, but the main opposition announced a boycott on grounds of fraud. Opposition groups that did take part said on Monday the process could not be rescued.
The election looks likely to confirm the 21-year rule of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state wanted by the International Criminal Court to face charges of war crimes allegedly committed in Darfur. He rejects the ICC’s jurisdiction. “The elections so far have been a slow process with many pockets of confusion and polling stations facing major obstacles in logistics,” Anne Itto, a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), told reporters.
South Sudan’s heavyweight SPLM sparked a crisis of confidence in the polls this month when it withdrew its presidential candidate, seen as the main contender to Bashir. It is boycotting most of the votes in the north.
The former rebels ended more than two decades of north-south civil war by signing a peace deal with Bashir in 2005, and are now part of a tense national coalition government.
Itto said many people in the underdeveloped south were turning out to vote only to find their names missing from voter lists. “People are too impatient to walk to seven different locations and not get their names … In (one area of) Torit town for example, the total number of registered voters was 1,323 but the number of people who voted (on the first day) was 29, only two percent.”
Itto listed six other areas where she said the first day’s turnout was between three and 10 percent.
Southern election officials and monitors said early voting had been hit by missing ballot boxes, poorly trained staff and a lack of information on the location of voting centres. “When people don’t get their names, we have to calm them and then send them to look in other places, but they go the wrong way and then come back again for more directions,” said Margaret Licho, a polling station observer in Juba.
The elections are seen as a test of stability as Sudan prepares for a referendum on southern secession in 2011.
Problems were expected in the complex polls, with more than 1,000 different ballots and 10,000 voting stations. But observers said the extent of the errors was very serious.
Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) acknowledged there was low turnout in some regions, particularly in the south, but said participation in Khartoum and other areas was encouraging. “I think that some areas in the south the turnout may be a bit weaker … with the logistics problems and transport problems and the high illiteracy rate,” senior NCP official Ibrahim Ghandour told Reuters.
“But overall, the voting process is going on very well. There is a very peaceful atmosphere and a considerable rush from the voters in some areas.” He suggested the problem in the south was that most southerners had never taken part in an election before.
Khartoum, by contrast, has seen a turnout of 450,000 voters, or 25 per cent of the registered electorate, on the first day, he said.
South Sudan analyst Maggie Fick from the U.S.-based Enough Project said that, in at least some polling stations, fewer people came on the second day, Monday.
“Perhaps it was a word of mouth thing, people were telling each other that it’s hard to find your name,” she said.