Can Elections Restructure Sudan for Peace?

There are elections in countries with well-worn political structures, such as the recent elections in the United Kingdom. There, elections serve as a certain circulation of the elites and modest changes in policy. Then there are elections in countries that have not known multi-party elections in many years, where there are few existing political structures but a willingness to use violence for political ends and where the consequences of the elections are not clear. Such was the case with the April 11 elections in Sudan.

The holding of elections was part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005. The April elections were the first multi-party elections in 24 years so that much of the Sudanese population have never voted. There was little voter education but a good number of political meetings. While in some countries, elections serve to structure an administration and set policies, such is not likely to be the case in Sudan where structures and policies in place are likely to continue regardless of who wins. As one commentator put it “It is the same old politicians who are resurfacing, showing that the country still thrives on cronyism.”

In fact, Sudan has no politicians but only the representatives of little-changing groups. Omar al-Bashir, the “winner” of the elections, is the current President. He had the advantage of controlling the Army, the security forces, and much of the administration. He has overseen the economic contacts with foreign countries, especially China and is given credit for the relative economic development and the creation of a middle class in the cities. He needed to win the election in order to counter the indictment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) on seven counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur. Since al-Bashir has been backed by most of the leaders of African and Arab States, the ICC indictment has little chance to be carried out. Nevertheless, al-Bashir needed to have a show of support to indicate that “the people are behind him.” In the elections, Al-Bashir made promises to all sectors of the population and put in jail or otherwise menaced people in opposition in those geographic areas he controls most tightly.

At the start of the election campaign, there were three serious opponents to al-Bashir – all representatives of little-changing movements. The best known was al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, twice Prime Minister, especially in the 1986-89 period when he was overthrown in the 1989 coup and al-Bashir came to power. Al-Mahdi is a main representative of the Mahdiyya Sufi order (or Tariqa as these are known in Sudan). The Mahdiyya order has always been strong in the Darfur provinces, and it is likely that the Darfur conflict will be colored by how well al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, who is the grandson of the original Sudanese Mahdi of the 1882 revolt, did in the state assembly elections.

Sadiq al-Mahdi withdrew from the national election claiming that the campaign conditions were unfair and the voting procedures open to fraud. However, his name and portrait were already on the printed ballot. Although he called upon his followers to boycott the elections, a good number of people voted for him, and he came in fifth of the 12 parties on the national ballot for president. A cousin of the same family, Mubarak al-Madhi ran as an independent, a split off from the Umma Party. He came in eighth. At the level of the state assemblies, the Umma Party is represented in the northern states, always as a minority. However, there are among those elected as independents and even others who are influenced by al-Madhi without being a member of his party.

Another Sufi order, the Mirghaniyya, led by the Mirghani family, especially Muhammed Osman al-Mirghani, which claims descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad, has a political party, the Democratic Unionist Party and ran a candidate, Hatim El Sir. He has little support beyond the Sufi order and is not likely to have much influence on the Darfur situation. However the Sufi order represents a solid bank of votes and is represented as a minority in the national Parliament and in the northern state assemblies.

The unknown element in the election process was the relative strength of the Popular Congress of Hassan al-Turabi, founded in 2000 when there was a split between al-Turabi and al-Bashir, and thus a split within the governing National Congress Party. Originally, al-Turabi was the ideological mastermind of the National Islamic Front government. For nearly 40 years from 1965, al-Turabi had prepared his coming to power and structuring Sudan on the basis of a reformist but legalistic Islam close in spirit to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. 

For al-Turabi, the only way to break the power of the two Sufi orders with political influence was to develop a non-Sufi Islam, based on traditional Islamic jurisprudence but interpreted in a modern spirit, open to all. Such a movement would have an influence well beyond Sudan. Al-Turabi taught his doctrine and helped in the training of military, police, academic and administrative cadres. When opportunity struck for a coup in 1989, al-Turabi’s men were in key positions. However, al-Turabi is an intellectual with philosophy degrees from France and England. Someone with a more outgoing, popular personality was needed to be head of State. Brigadier General Omar al-Bashir, a military man, was chosen as “front man”. Al-Turabi was head of the National Islamist Front, the governing political party, and President of the National Assembly. 

This division of power worked until 2000 when Al-Bashir thought he had enough support to be his own man. Al-Turabi was arrested and has alternated between real prisons and house arrest since. Abdullah Deng Nhial, long an al-Turabi lieutenant ran for president on the Popular Congress ticket and came in third in over all votes and second in the north behind al-Bashir. Such a display of strength worried al-Bashir who had al-Turabi re-arrested on May 16.

Since the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between north and south Sudan, the south has been semi-autonomous in theory. In practice, it has been largely independent, although the President of the south, Salva Kir Mayardit, serves as First Vice President of the whole country. Kir Mayardit, a Christian, did not run for president of Sudan. It was said that he was reserving his strength for the 2011 referendum which will be a vote on the total independence of south Sudan. Kir Mayardit did run for President of south Sudan in these elections and received 93 percent of the votes. Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) is allergic to dissent and the few who ran against the SPLM in the state elections were intimidated or beaten. Kir Mayardit’s lieutenant, Yasir Arman, a Muslim, ran as the candidate of the SPLM for national president. As al-Madhi, he called late in the campaign for a boycott of the elections, but his name and face were already on the ballot. Thus he received a solid majority of votes in the south and came in second at the national level.

It is at the level of the 25 state assemblies that the elections may have an impact on the social structure and lead to a more peaceful Sudan. Although al-Bashir’s governing National Congress Party holds the majority of seats in all the northern provinces, there are some opposition legislators elected as well as independent voices. A bloc of seats in each assembly was reserved for women. It is too early to know how much decision-making power the state assemblies will have and how independent, the “independent” legislators and women can be. Civil society organizations in Sudan are still evaluating the election results and will be watching to see what role state assemblies will play.

The SPLM holds the majority of seats in all the southern assemblies with few independent or opposition voices. For the southern Sudanese, the crucial issue is the January 2011 referendum on remaining within Sudan or becoming an independent state. The current political structure of Sudan with southern autonomy and a southern Vice President of the whole country has not allowed the reforms or the economic development that many hoped. There are still people uprooted from the 1982-2005 civil war. A key question concerning the division of Sudan in two would be the custody battle over oil revenue. The most productive oil fields lie in southern Sudan or along the unresolved north-south border. There could be an agreement to share oil revenue regardless of how the frontier is drawn. As China is by far the largest buyer of Sudanese oil, it is in its interest that any division of the country not lead to a new armed conflict. The Chinese authorities usually work “behind the scene” and so it will be important to watch what negotiations go on concerning oil fields.

The next six months in Sudan are likely to be decisive. The armed conflict in Darfur may fade away without an official peace agreement if the three Darfur state assemblies are able to play an active, reforming role. The north-south tensions may grow as the January referendum nears, and tensions on an ethnic basis in the south may also grow as people position themselves for greater power if an independent South Sudan State is proclaimed. The situation merits close attention.

Rene Wadlow is editor of the online journal of world politics and an NGO representative to the UN, Geneva.