Sudan after the elections
Washington - National elections were recently held in Sudan for the presidency, the national legislature and local government. Some 13 million voters were registered, but turnout was reported very low.
Sixteen candidates ran for president against the incumbent Omar al-Bashir, whose victory was confirmed April 27th when the National Electoral Commission reported that the president took more than 94 percent of the vote in winning another five-year term.
Observers from Arab and African countries commended the elections as free from irregularities, but several Western governments denounced them as unrepresentative. They pointed to the unfulfilled promise of a national dialogue among the regime and its various opponents in regional rebel areas, joined by others in the Sudan Call.
These elections are a far cry from those in earlier decades when Sudan was among the pioneers in the Arab world in conducting competitive elections for parliament. Those held in 1953 (leading later to a referendum on national identity, resulting in independence from Britain and Egypt on January 1, 1956), in 1958 and 1968 (resulting in a peaceful turnover of government from party to party), in 1965 and 1986 (leading to the re-establishment of parliamentary democracy with coalition governments following extended military rule) were universally judged to be free and fair, unlike most others in Africa and the Arab world.
The major political parties were the National Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the latter resulting from a merger of National Umma Party (NUP) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), whose main supporters were members of the largest religious sects, the Ansar and Khatmiyya, respectively.
They each obtained 30-40% in all elections and they were complemented by smaller parties representing “radical” ideologies (communists and Muslim Brotherhood) or geographic interests (Beja Congress in the east, Nuba Mountains Federation in the centre, Darfur groupings in the west and the Sudan African National Union (SANU) plus Southern Front in the south).
Many parliamentary regimes require coalitions for majority rule. Unfortunately, free and fair elections did not produce stable governments, primarily because of the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Sudan, a huge country of 597 tribes speaking almost 400 languages and dialects and adhering to approximately 200 religious identities.
The constant need for compromise among sometimes strange bedfellows, compounded by ever-present personal rivalries, made Sudan’s internal politics look very similar to those of Israel and Lebanon, and to Turkey’s prior to the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Parliamentary gridlock in richer countries can be endured with misgivings, but in a third-world country like Sudan, bordering on fourth-world status, desperate conditions seem to call for more desperate measures. When military juntas intervened in November 1958 (Ibrahim Abboud), May 1969 (Jaafar Numayri) and June 1989 (al-Bashir) the politically aware populace welcomed them and even the country’s intellectuals abided.
Alas, no one expected the juntas to remain in power as long as they did, having in mind perhaps the example of the Turkish military intervention of 11 months (1960- 61). Yet almost paradoxically, politically aware Sudanese dislike military rule or authoritarianism in any form, except briefly in crisis situations to address a particular emergency. If and when the military overstay their presence in government, resentment builds quite rapidly.
This was true of the Numayri and Abboud regimes and has been growing regarding the National Congress Party (NCP) government under al-Bashir. Many observers believed one decade ago that al-Bashir would lose a competitive election, except that the unreasonable pressures from outside forces, especially the US government, but also the International Criminal Court (ICC), caused many Sudanese to rally behind him.
Inter alia, he was falsely accused of masterminding a “genocide” in Darfur; thankfully, genocide never happened and was acknowledged as such by the African Union and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. (I have discussed this calamity in detail in Darfur, the ICC and American Politics, Middle East Policy Vol. XVI, No.2.)
The Western-led disinformation campaigns by groups like Save Darfur were so obviously contrived that many Sudanese who were otherwise fed up with al-Bashir’s authoritarian rule, rallied around him and backed him in the 2010 elections — he won 68% of the vote — which he might very well have lost otherwise.
It is within this context that this year’s elections must be understood: A sort of legitimation for al-Bashir domestically, combined with the hope, curiously, that it might enhance his credibility internationally. Meanwhile, the largest opposition party has boycotted the elections and has been able to drag some minor groupings along.
So once again, the body politic is split: the regime and its National Intelligence Service refer to the participation of 44 different political parties as proof of legitimacy, while the various oppositionists point at the unusually small voter turnout as proof that the elections lacked legitimacy. There is historical precedence for this: In 1965 the Khatmiyya-based PDP also boycotted the elections on spurious grounds when, in fact, it had failed to organise in time and wanted to avoid embarrassing results at the polls.
There are many Sudanese groups, unfortunately, that believe it is better to boycott the system than to work from within to improve it. They have been able to convince their followers of the correctness of their cause but, in the end, they do lose out. This misguided policy led to the demise of the PDP as a previously significant party, and it might apply this year to opposition groups as well.