KHARTOUM, Sudan, (AP) – Three days of voting began Sunday in Sudan’s first competitive elections in nearly a quarter century despite repeated opposition calls to delay the vote.
In Khartoum, turnout was lighter than expected in the first few hours of voting, aside from a few enthusiastic supporters of President Omar al-Bashir.
The elections, which will run through Tuesday, are an essential part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the north-south war that killed 2 million people over 21 years. They are designed to kick-start a democratic transformation in the war-plagued nation and provide a democratically elected government to prepare for a crucial southern referendum next year
But two major political parties, including the southerners, decided to pull out fully or partially from the race, saying the process lacks credibility and elections can’t be held in the western Darfur region while under a state of emergency.
They called for a delay of the vote to address their concerns. The government refused.
More than 800 international observers descended on Africa’s largest country to observe the fairness of the contests, with the largest group from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s organization. He toured a polling stations at the start of the day.
“I think (opposition parties) want to see a peaceful transition and peace in this country, so I don’t think there is any party that is threatening at all any disturbance or violence or intimidation of voters,” he told reporters. “So we do expect and hopeful and believe there will be a peaceful election.”
The opposition has made a series of complaints — that the National Election Commission is biased to the government, the ruling party has used state resources in the campaign, the number of polling stations nationwide was cut in half from 20,000, making it harder for those in remote villages to cast ballots.
“This is the first time that the party that carried out a coup organizes elections,” said Sarah Nugdallah, the head of the political bureau of the Umma party, a major northern opposition group which is boycotting.
Some 16 million people will vote for over 14,000 candidates for everything from president to local councils.
Voting took place amid heavy security and police have issued stern warnings that no disturbances will be tolerated on election day. Though the day is not a holiday, many shops in Khartoum were closed Sunday.
In the ravaged western Darfur region, rebels have called for a boycott of the election since a state of emergency exists and fighting continues.
Since 2003, this vast arid region has been the scene of a bloody conflict between the Arab-led government in Khartoum and ethnic African rebels. At least 300,000 have been killed and millions driven from their homes in a war that was marked by atrocities by pro-government Arab militias against Darfur villagers.
The ruling party, however, still campaigned strongly in the three provinces of the region, holding large campaign rallies up until the last minute.
Election posters lined the few paved roads of the regional capital of al-Fasher, showing pictures of al-Bashir, the “strong and honest leader,” and inciting voters to choose the “powerful party.”