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Khartoum Polling Centers Empty as Referendum Voting Continues

In southern Sudan, long lines of people have been waiting to cast their votes at referendum polling centers. At referendum centers in Khartoum, however, there are no lines at all. At one polling station in the slums of Khartoum, three hours go by without a single person showing up to cast a ballot.

The sense at these empty voting centers is that many of those who registered have returned to the south ahead of the vote. The UN reports that 120,000 Sudanese have returned to the south since mid-December, and the southern government has organized transport and assistance for returnees.

Some southerners say they are concerned for their security if they stay in the north. They fear potential reprisals if the south chooses independence, and worry about their citizenship status as southerners living in the north.

A South Sudanese woman arrives to vote at a polling centre in Khartoum January 9, 2011.

A South Sudanese woman arrives to vote at a polling centre in Khartoum January 9, 2011.

“I have five kids and I sent them home to Northern Bahr el Gazal state. I sent them to be safe if things go bad,” said voter Mary Galuak. “If my people in the south voted for secession I may have to go back home to reunite with my children. If for unity, I will bring them back to continue their schooling in the north. Galuak has kept only her infant child with her in the north.

For the referendum to pass, in addition to receiving a majority of ballots, 60% of registered voters need to turn out. Southern leaders had encouraged people not to register if they did not intend to vote, or to register in the south if they planned to return before the vote. Voters can only vote in the location where they registered.

Analysts suggest that those who remain in the north may be deterred from voting due to fears of vote rigging.

Alex Emanuel is one voter who decided to stay and cast his ballot in the north.

“I have been here in the north for the last 22 years,” he said. “I left my region because of war – now things are ok in the south. We have a very bad life here in the north. I have to vote because this is a constitutional right.”

“That’s what made me come to this polling center today. To cast my vote for my freedom, which we will soon have,” Emanuel said.

According to the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission, only 3% of eligible voters, about 117,000 people, registered to vote in the north, compared to over 3.75 million people, registering in the south.

The referendum commission says it expects voter turnout in the north to rise by the weekend.