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SUDAN: U.S. Support of Elections Draws Criticism

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Apr 5 2010 (IPS) - Recent remarks by the U.S. envoy to Sudan predicting credible elections have led to criticism both here and in Sudan over Washington’s policy toward the African nation.

The statement by Scott Gration that Sudan’s elections will be as “free and fair as possible” came amid an extensive boycott of the presidential elections by major opposition parties in Africa’s largest country.

Last week, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s main challenger, Yassir Arman, boycotted the presidential elections due to security fears, the continued conflict in Darfur and irregularities in the electoral process. Arman was backed by the south Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a Christian-dominated group that fought the Sudanese government during what is known as the second Sudanese civil war that lasted for 22 years.

The civil war ended in 2005 when the SPLM and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) of President Bashir signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Kenya.

Sudanese will cast their ballots from Apr. 11 to 13 in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections, the first in more than 20 years.

Despite a widespread opposition boycott of the polls, the U.S. envoy to Sudan has come out publicly in defence of the elections.

“They (electoral commission members) have given me confidence that the elections will start on time and they would be as free and as fair as possible,” said Gration in Sudan’s capital Khartoum on Saturday.

“These people have gone to great lengths to ensure that the people of Sudan will have access to polling places and that the procedures and processes will ensure transparency,” he said.

Although the SPLM has boycotted the presidential election, it has decided to stay in the race for parliamentary and local elections.

But now with the SPLM-backed Arman out of the race, the incumbent has no serious rival. President Bashir himself was indicted by the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2008 for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

The concerns over irregularities in the electoral process combined with the ICC indictment have some wondering why the U.S. is supporting the “flawed” election process.

“Scott Gration’s comments on Sudan for quite some time have lacked all credibility,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of Centre for American Progress’s Enough Project, an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

“He has an outcome in mind which is a checked box for the elections without any reference to the facts on the ground,” added Prendergast, who was the director of African Affairs at the National Security Council in President Bill Clinton’s administration in 1990s.

He criticised the U.S policy toward Sudan as based on “wishful thinking”, saying Gration’s remarks reflect a notion that if you say things are good, they will be good.

Meanwhile, Bashir has vowed to hold the elections on time. Speaking at a rally in eastern Sudan last Saturday, he said, “Ahead of us, the days are numbered…There is no postponement, there is no delay and there is no cancellation,” Bloomberg news agency reported.

It is not yet clear how President Bashir will react to the opposition’s boycott, in particular the SPLM’s, but he has threatened to refuse to hold the independence referendum in south Sudan scheduled for next year if SPLM will not revoke its boycott.

The Comprehensive Peace Agreement is intended to pave the way for a gradual restoration of stability to Sudan. It envisages a referendum on southern Sudan’s independence in 2011. South Sudan is populated by Christians and Animists, while the north is dominated by Arab-speaking Muslims.

Some see the push by the ruling NCP to hold the elections on time as an attempt to grant legitimacy to the embattled president, who has an ICC arrest warrant issued against him. But without any major contenders, some doubt he can gain that sense of legitimacy.

“I think the legitimacy Bashir will gain from these elections is virtually nothing,” Eric Reeves, a Sudan analyst at Smith College in Massachusetts, told IPS. “The question is how honestly the EU, Carter Centre and Japan and others will be in declaring what they have seen in terms of fraud in census, voter registration process and the behaviour of the regime and security forces in the lead-up to these elections. Everybody has seen it but nobody has been willing to say it.”

In a statement in mid-March, the Carter Centre had expressed concerns over the “environment of insecurity” and limited ability of candidates to campaign and express their views freely. The Centre was founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and conducts election observation missions around the world.

The conditions are reportedly worse in the western region of Darfur, where around 300,000 civilians have been massacred in recent years by government-backed Janjaweed militias, according to United Nations figures.

The ongoing violence in Darfur has meant the majority of the internally displaced people in the area have either been unable or refused to register for the vote, said the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think-tank based in Brussels. The U.N. estimates there are around 2.5 million displaced individuals in Darfur.

There are fears that the elections may plunge the war-torn country into a new round of violence if the results create major dissatisfaction among some of the opposition parties.

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