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No surprises, but it’s important to discuss what’s happened and what happens next, says Ed Cotton.
Since Omar al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989, not one credible election has taken place in Sudan. It would therefore be naïve to consider this time around to be any different, or to believe that there has been any significant change to the political landscape in Sudan. The results are in and, after a cripplingly low voter turnout (reported estimates vary between 30 percent – 46 percent), and an election boycott from virtually all opposition parties (including the three largest; the National Umma Party (NUP), the Popular Congress Party (PCP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)), Bashir has been re-elected as president with 94 percent of the vote. The result itself, like the three presidential elections that have been held since Bashir came to power, comes as no surprise and does not require much in the way of discussion or deliberation. What is important to discuss however, are the steps that the opposition will be expected to take in light of the outcome. Never before has the opposition in Sudan been as united as it is today, and never before has talk of the need for change been so prominent.
This election has taken place against a backdrop of critical issues facing Sudan today and, regardless of who is in power, these must be addressed if the Sudanese people have any chance of peace, prosperity and the realisation of their fundamental rights. For the 25 years that Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) have been in power, there has been an increasingly restrictive and brutal crackdown on Sudanese civil society, political participation of opposition groups, press freedom and independent media. The capacity for human rights and aid organisations to work in the country has also been increasingly and severely limited. Violent conflicts in Darfur, and more recently in Blue Nile state and Southern Kordofan, have killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions and condemned many millions more to social and political marginalisation and insecurity.
In the run up to the election, it was noted that there seemed to be very little sign that an election was even taking place. In 2010, although the expected outcome was still the same, there was a sense of legitimacy in the political participation of opposition candidates, clear signs of advertising and open campaigning. Despite these evident displays of a democratic process, Bashir was re-elected with around 70 percent of the vote, a result that was marred with an array of claims of irregularities and vote rigging at polling stations, as well as reports of violence and intimidation carried out by state security forces. The focus however was quickly drawn to the referendum and the impending secession of South Sudan in 2011 and, seeing as 22 of the remaining 30 percent of the vote went to the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), these claims and accusations were gradually phased out and forgotten.
In the five years leading up to the 2015 election, the Sudanese government has led a campaign of harassment and intimidation against civil society groups and independent media outlets, as well as further restricting political participation of opposition groups, and brutally cracking down on social and political dissent. During 2012 and 2013, the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), a government regulated body, ordered the closure of several prominent civil society organisations (CSOs), as part of the implementation of the Voluntary and Humanitarian Work Act (2006). Any CSO or NGO that is critical of the government may have its licence withdrawn by the HAC, subsequently forcing it to cease all operations. During the same period, several notable newspapers were closed and journalists arrested and imprisoned, either for printing material critical of the government, or for covering stories about the meeting and coordination of opposition groups.
In June/July 2012, protests took place in response to increases in food and transportation costs and resulted in the arrest of around 2000 protestors by police and the notorious National Intelligence Security Service (NISS), some of whom were held for two months without charge, and exposed to physical and psychological torture. Then in September and October 2013, demonstrations took place in Khartoum and other cities across the country to protest to the dropping of fuel subsidies. These were met with lethal force from state security forces, resulting in the deaths of around 200 civilians and the arrest of over 800 others. These actions by the Sudanese government have created a social and political climate in Sudan that completely restricts press freedom, and does not tolerate freedom of assembly, opinion or expression.
In December of last year the vast majority of opposition groups, including political parties, armed groups and CSOs, signed the ‘Sudan Call’ Agreement and formed the National Consensus Front (NCF). This agreement demands the dismantling of the one party state, a comprehensive peace accord and a democratic transition of power. The NCF, who have called for the elections to be postponed, wish to see the instalment of a transitional government who can oversee free and fair elections, and democracy enhancing amendments to the constitution.
Despite the demands of the NCF, polls opened on the 13th April and were due to stay open until the 15th. However, due to the apparent disinterest of the voters, and only a trickle of votes cast over the first two days, voting was extended by a further day in an attempt to encourage a higher turnout. In a country of 38 million people, only 13 million are registered to vote and, despite polling stations remaining open, turnout remained at a low of 30 percent (according to Olusegun Obasanjo, head of the AU team monitoring the election), and at no higher than 46 percent (according to estimates from Mukhtar al-Asam, head of the Sudanese Elections Committee ).
These figures come at no real surprise, considering the fact that the majority of opposition candidates, including the three largest opposition parties, boycotted the election and encouraged others to do the same. Leading figures in the opposition, including Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the NUP, and Minni Minnawi, the leader of the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLM-MM), have called upon the international community not to recognise the results of the election. In a joint statement, the Troika (US, UK and Norway), the EU and the AU have claimed that the results of the election cannot be considered as credible, as the Sudanese government has failed to create a free and fair environment. The SLM-MM, the NUP and other opposition groups have praised the position of these institutions and has requested that they maintain this position in the face of the results. They have drawn attention to the low voter turnout as cause to undermine the result and consider it to be illegitimate and unconducive to the true desires of the people of Sudan.
On Monday 27th April it was announced that Bashir has been re-elected with 94 percent of the popular vote, in a result being described as ‘more of the same’ and ‘business as usual’ for the people of Sudan. Despite statements from the international community, including AU monitors, claiming that the elections could not be considered credible, the Sudanese government maintain the 2015 election to be a ‘triumph for the consolidation of democracy’ in Sudan. Bashir has now stated that he wishes to re-establish a national dialogue, and hold inclusive peace talks with political stake holders. This is despite having rejected these calls from the opposition prior to the election, and enacting several constitutional amendments in January this year, allowing him to tighten his grip on power and further diminish political opposition.
According to Harry Verhoeven, a professor of African politics at Georgetown University, none of the excitement or optimism felt at the previous election had been present this time around, and that ‘no one believes the re-election of Bashir will lead to any genuine political change’. This sentiment is apparently shared with the public of Sudan, most of whom did not bother to cast their vote. Some joked in the run up that they weren’t aware an election was taking place. Others stated that the election was clearly just for show, and that the money being spent on the campaigns would be better off being invested in public services and infrastructure.
It is important to note that the pattern of events that have taken place over this election are notably similar to those of previous elections held since the NCP has been in power. In 1996, the first election called since the 1989 military coup that made Bashir president, the government insisted that the election would transform the country into a modern democracy, even though political parties had been banned. Back then opposition groups were still hailing the elections as a farce and a ‘meaningless show intended to legitimise an unpopular government’.
In 2000 Bashir swept to victory with 86 percent of the vote in an election that apparently confirmed there to be an ‘open political culture’ in Sudan. It was supposedly held in a ‘conductive atmosphere and a democratic manner’, a fairly spurious assessment considering the election was boycotted by the major opposition candidates, and that voting could not take place in 17 constituencies due to the civil war with the South. In 2010, in what was supposed to be the first multi-party election in Sudan for more than 20 years, a wave of arrests, harassment and intimidation led to last minute boycotts from the main opposition parties, in addition to reports of logistical failures and technical irregularities.
So what is different in 2015? What change are we likely to see, that we haven’t seen in the aftermath of previous elections? On the surface it would appear that the answer would be nothing. Conflict stills engulfs the country, with the civilian populations in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile still suffering widespread abuse and rights violations at the hand of government forces. Despite calls to postpone the election due to the exclusion of voters from these conflict ridden areas, it has gone ahead anyway, just as in previous years. What we are seeing now though is a unification of the opposition that we have not seen before. Calls for the instalment of an interim transitional government, and an end to the one party state have never been stronger.
It is fairly clear that despite his age, and past claims of stepping aside, Bashir will not relinquish power, as this will leave him vulnerable to prosecution from the International Criminal Court, whom have had a warrant for his arrest for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide since 2009. If it also clear that there can be no real inclusive dialogue, political inclusion or compromise between the NCP and the opposition, then what is the solution?
No one in Sudan wants another civil war or violent revolution, but at this stage in the country’s history, and in its current state of social and political instability, it’s hard to imagine an alternative course of action. Armed groups like the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and SLM-MM have been calling for the removal of Bashir and the NCP from power for several years, by force if necessary, and in light of recent events and the result of this election, a peaceful transition of power is seeming less likely.
Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the main opposition party, the NUP, is pushing to negotiate peaceful settlements to the various armed conflicts, and has stated that unless the UN Security Council and other international institutions increase their involvement in the process, the ‘opposition are determined to topple the government through a popular uprising’. It is still unclear exactly what changes to Sudan’s political landscape, if any, will take place in the coming months, but if change is to happen, it is considerably more likely to come from the external forces of a unified opposition, than a formal challenge to Bashir’s power or any intervention from the international community.
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.