A Beginners Guide to Elections in Sudan

10 April 2015

Nigeria’s elections, which took place last month, saw a peaceful, democratic transfer of power from an incumbent President to an opposition leader for the first time in the country’s history. In his concession speech, President Goodluck Jonathan said, nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian” (read our analysis of the elections here).

Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Sudan, due to begin on the 13th April, are likely to be a very different story. The results are widely believed to be a forgone conclusion, returning incumbent President Omar al-Bashir and his ruling party, the NCP, to power – potentially with a greater veneer of legitimacy.

The official results are predictable. What’s more interesting is what is happening outside of the formal procedures. A broad coalition of opposition and civil society groups are boycotting the elections and encouraging voters across the country to do the same. Their joint campaign represents a new level of unity for the usually-fragmented opposition, potentially transforming them into a force with the power to catalyse change in Sudan’s monolithic politics.


Who Is Running In The Elections?

Incumbent President al-Bashir – who came to power in a coup in 1989, and who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide – is running for the National Congress Party (NCP). There are 15 other candidates, none of whom are well known. Six are being sponsored by their political parties and the rest are running as independents.

One independent candidate, Mr Hamdi Hassan Ahmed, has announced a sit-in protest at the National Election Commission (NEC) in Khartoum, protesting the bias of the commission and of the state media. He told the press, “The commission and the state media are very biased and support the candidate of the ruling party, without allowing us to express our views”.


Who Isn’t Running In The Elections?

That’s the real question. All major opposition parties, including the National Umma Party (NUP, the largest party), the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and some of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are boycotting the elections.

In December 2014, the long-fragmented political opposition united around the Sudan Call. This joint declaration was signed by major opposition groups including the Sudanese Revolutionary Forces (SRF), National Consensus Forces (NCF), the National Umma Party (NUP), and the Alliance of the Sudanese Civil Society Organisations. The signatories state that they, “have come together and pledged to work to dismantle the one-party state regime and replace it with a state founded on equal citizenship”.

In relation to the elections, they said, “the current electoral process is a façade intended to falsify the national will and legitimize the regime, we decide to boycott the announced elections and work to transform the process into popular resistance campaigns and reject its outcome.” They have been working to rally support around their campaign “Leave”, calling on Sudanese to boycott the elections.

Two of the signatories and leading opposition politicians, Dr Amin Mekki Medai and Farouk Ab Issa, were detained on their return to Khartoum. They have been detained for the last four months, facing charges of seeking to overthrow the government. They were finally released this Thursday, in what appears to have been a last-ditch attempt by the government to improve the credibility of the elections.

This week, in a statement signed by representatives from the NUP, SRF, NCF and civil society, the Sudan Call forces appealed to the Sudanese people to “to escalate the resistance against the fraudulent elections and overlook its results and to continue the resistance campaigns until the overthrow of the regime”.


Civil Society Speaking Out

Many civil society organisations have publically condemned the elections. At the end of March, in an open letter to the African Union (AU), a coalition of African, Arab and Sudanese civil society organisations stated, “The elections, if held on 13 April in Sudan, risk triggering violence and likely will be a driver of conflict, exacerbating the root causes that fuel the wars in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, and further complicate efforts to bring about a negotiated settlement to the Sudanese crisis.” They asked the AU not to send elections monitors; a request that has been ignored (see international responses, below).

The Confederation of Sudanese Civil Society Organisations (CSCSO) has also issued a statement, stating that it “views the upcoming elections in April as falling short of basic international standards which would afford it with the ability to be recognised for its credibility in the expression of the will of the voters.”

These statements are being made in a context of increasing repression of civil society. According to Amnesty International (AI), 3 leading civil society organisations have been shut down and at least five others are under imminent threat of closure. AI say that they have documented raids on several civil society offices and the surveillance of their staff by the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). AI’s Deputy Regional Director for East Africa has said that “Human rights violations by NISS [are] now at unprecedented levels”.

Al Sadiq Hassan, from the Darfur Bar Association, said, “This is the worst time for civil society in Sudan; they are facing a systematic attack from the regime on their freedom of expression and assembly. After the recent constitutional amendments, the level of harassment has increased.” 

This is part of a broader crackdown on freedom of speech by the Government. At least 16 newspapers have had editions of their publications confiscated by NISS on 42 different occasions since January 2015. In February, NISS seized the entire print runs of fourteen papers in one day. Some 21 journalists have been interrogated by security officials.


Ongoing Conflict

The backdrop to the elections is one of conflict, characterised by relentless attacks on civilians, particularly in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur. In these parts of the country, the Government cannot even feign political support, and instead seeks to impose its might through military domination.

In Darfur, 73% of the population are in need of humanitarian assistance and 40% are displaced. Over 100,000 people have been displaced since the start of 2015 alone.

Conflict in South Kordofan has also escalated since the beginning of the year. According to the Sudan Consortium, the Government carried out ‘significant attacks’ in February and March. The group has documented 68 incidents of bombing or shelling of civilian areas in South Kordofan during these two months, causing ten civilian deaths and 61 injuries. 16 of those injured were children. The bombing has also resulted in damage to schools and hospitals, and the deaths of 80 heads of livestock. In Blue Nile, too, the conflict continues to take a heavy toll on civilians, as documented by HART earlier this year.

At an event on the Sudanese elections in the Houses of Parliament in March, this issue dominated debate and contributions from the diaspora. One person said, “to hold elections at this time is an insult to people in Darfur, Nuba Mountains, Kordofan”. Another said, “The election should not be allowed to carry on because it is not free or fair. More than 60% of the Sudanese population come from marginalised areas, which are being bombed by Bashir. Many are internally displaced from Khartoum. If elections are to be held, it is being held under intimidation.”

With millions displaced in and outside the country, and massive humanitarian suffering, a significant portion of the population will be disenfranchised. It has recently been announced that the election will not take place in seven districts of South Kordofan and one district of Darfur, thus officially excluding many conflict-affected civilians from the electoral process. Others may face de facto exclusion from voting; Nuba Reports founder Ryan Boyette just tweeted:

Others are actively boycotting the elections. The Coordination Office of the Darfur Displaced and Refugees Association has called on Sudanese to boycott the vote, and to stage mass demonstrations instead, in protest against the rigged election and the brutal regime in Khartoum.”

Refugees from Blue Nile in Maban Camp, South Sudan, have also been protesting the elections:

According to Radio Dabanga, refugees and displaced persons from Blue Nile wonder how they can participate in election organised by a government that severely hampers efforts of humanitarian organisations to provide aid, while continuing their attacks on the population “aerial bombardments, shelling, and internationally prohibited chemical weapons”.”

SPLA-N forces in South Kordofan have been working to disrupt the elections. They are calling for the elections to be postponed while a peaceful solution to the conflicts in South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur is negotiated. On the 11th March, Abdul Aziz El Hilu, SPLA-N’s leader, said in a speech, “Bashir wants to raise himself up and be the president again for another five years. But we will ruin his election.” Over the past month, they have attached nearly a dozen garrisons in South Kordofan. Most recently, the rebel forces reported seizing a vehicle loaded with ballot boxes. Defence Minister Abdel Rahim Mohammed Hussein has said the army “will not allow rebels to impede elections”.


International Responses

The Government of Sudan decided this week not to attend a pre-dialogue meeting, which was supposed to help set the stage for the forthcoming national dialogue process. The European Union then released a statement, saying, “The failure to initiate a genuine national dialogue one year after it was announced by the Government of Sudan is a setback for the welfare of the people of Sudan”. On the question of elections, the EU said, “When dialogue is bypassed, some groups are excluded and civil and political rights are infringed, the upcoming elections cannot produce a credible result with legitimacy throughout the country. The people of Sudan deserve better. We therefore chose not to engage in support of these elections.” In response, Sudan’s Foreign Ministry says it has summoned the EU’s representative in Khartoum over the remarks, which it says are “deliberate distortion”.

In a letter to the Times, published today, a group of British politicians including Baroness Cox said they “will neither recognise nor accept the conditions under which Sudan will hold presidential and parliamentary elections this weekend.”

On Wednesday, the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) announced that it would be sending an observation mission to Sudan to monitor the elections, despite their own technical team having found that the electoral process in Sudan “does not meet the international and African standards for fair and free elections”.

The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a regional grouping, has decided to deploy an Election Observer Mission to Sudan, with 30 participants drawn from its six states. The Arab League has also announced that they will send a monitoring team composed of 33 monitors.


What Next?

Voting will take place over the 13th – 15th April. Results won’t be released until around the 27th April. Journalist James Copnall is currently in Khartoum to watch events unfold; follow him on Twitter here. For breaking news from the frontlines in South Kordofan, follow Nuba Reports here.

Ultimately, though, much of Sudan’s politics – the ruling party, opposition, civil society and national and international commentators – is elite dominated. As Raga Makawi stated at the in Parliament in March, this is “the realm of high politics, far detached from popular concerns and struggles”. In relation to the National Diaogue in particular, Raga described these political processes as, “political party wrangling watched but not followed by the greater majority of the Sudanese particularly those who bear the immediate brunt of the bloody pursuits of power in the country’s hinterlands.”

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Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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