As vote counting begins in Sudan's week-long general elections, analysts are giving the dire assessment that there will
be no winners, and only losers in the process.
Sudan experts at a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace this week in Washington were unanimous in their harsh criticism.
They said what they viewed as a botched election could mark the beginning of the end for all political parties in Sudan, instead of the country's first successful multi-party vote in 24 years.
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Herman Cohen said northern opposition parties made a huge mistake in boycotting the process. "Do not boycott because rigging, (the) rigging, will be seen. If you boycott, they do not have to rig, so it is important to participate and make sure that the rigging is documented and therefore making the winner even much less legitimate," he said.
John Prendergast, the co-founder of the Enough Project to end genocide and crimes against humanity, said even worse, they announced their boycott just days before the voting started. "Either you get in and fight it out or you get out early because it was clear early on that this election was going to be stolen. The census, the registration, national security laws, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the gerrymandering, all these factors months before, the actual electoral process, the electoral event actually occurred indicated where this was going. They did not do either. Instead, they waited until the final minute. Confusion reigns. Everyone loses sadly from this process," he said.
Gerard Prunier, a French researcher and member of the Academic Council of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, said that by not participating, the opposition parties showed they will have no role in the future of Sudan.
Prunier says they were afraid of the results they were going to get. But he says the ruling National Congress Party, known as the NCP, is not faring much better. He says it has become the party of elites in the capital Khartoum, but nowhere else. He says general disappointment in these elections will show its weakness. "Democratizing a totalitarian system is extremely difficult and the danger of cutting off your own feet in the process is very high," he said.
Prunier is also afraid of what will happen when oil-rich southern Sudan votes for independence in a referendum scheduled for next year or declares unilateral independence. "The danger is trying to occupy militarily the oil fields to secure the cash cow (no-rish money making method) of the government and militarily it is feasible so it is tempting and it is going to be a debate inside the NCP. Some pragmatists will say no, do not do it, it is too dangerous, and some guys will say let us do it because otherwise, we die, and we do not want to die," he said.
Prendergast said the international community which pushed so much for the comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 ending more than two decades of war between north and south Sudan had abandoned its implementation, such as enforcing border demarcation and figuring out oil issues.
He said south Sudan and the international community would be paying for this for years, if a conflict breaks out. "We will be paying billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping forces for the next 40 years in southern Sudan," he said.
J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, predicted the government in Khartoum will use outside rebel groups, like the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), to destabilize the south, potentially creating a regional nightmare. "Whether it be reactivating or resupplying the LRA or other movements which will then spur a vicious cycle of the other governments saying well we are being meddled with so let us return the favor," he said.
Pham said President Omar Hassan al-Bashir has no choice but to stay in power since there is an indictment against him at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Darfur.
The panelists said very few people in Darfur voted, since they were too afraid to do so or were never registered, and that the peace process there was going nowhere, even as rebels seem to be on the decline.
They also expressed disappointment in election monitors who they said were not being critical enough, as well as current U.S. diplomatic efforts, which they said were falling short.
They agreed China, which is the main importer of Sudan's oil which runs through northern pipelines and an important international ally of the government in Khartoum, may be the key player in averting a future disaster.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has been one of the monitors of the election on the ground. He has acknowledged problems, but reserved judgment until vote counting takes place. "I would not say, in advance, that the integrity of the election has been destroyed, but I am not going to make any comment about that until after the election process, the vote tabulation is complete," he said.
Mr. Carter defended the importance of the election, and said it was one step in a process that will lead to the southern referendum. He has also warned that if the north-south peace agreement falls apart, there would be another outbreak of war.