Sudan’s upcoming election brings to the end the transitional period which began when the decades-long Second Sudanese Civil War ended in 2005. Omar Hassan al-Bashir,74, the presidential candidate of the National Congress Party (NCP) is Sudan’s current head of state.
A commitment to the military – and Islam
Al-Bashir was born into a farming family of the Jaali ethnic group north of the capital in 1944. He studied at military academies in Cairo and Khartoum, and served as a paratrooper in the Egyptian army in the Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973.
Al-Bashir came to power in a bloodless coup in 1989 in an alliance with Islamists, deposing the country’s last elected civilian leader, prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi. In 1993, he appointed himself president, and was elected in 1996 and 2000. Critics note that he was unopposed in the first poll and that two of the largest opposition parties – the Umma and the Democratic Unionist Party – boycotted the latter.
During his rule, he instituted Sharia, or Islamic law, through much of the country and suspended political parties. He has cultivated closer trading ties with Russia and China, in part to off-set economic sanctions by the United States. US human rights activists charge Khartoum with supporting Arab militias accused of committing atrocities against civilians in the western province of Darfur.
Al-Bashir denies the charge, reportedly telling NBC News “Yes, there have been villages burned, but not to the extent you are talking about. People have been killed because there is war. It is not in the Sudanese culture or people of Darfur to rape. It doesn't exist. We don't have it."
Western critics also accuse Sudan of supporting international terrorism. However, Sudanese authorities say Khartoum has been cooperating with the US Government in the fight against terrorism following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al-Qaida.
In 2005, he reached a comprehensive peace agreement with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), a move that has paved the way to April’s elections and a subsequent referendum on southern independence in 2011.
Al-Bashir has encouraged foreign investment, which has helped expand the country’s telecommunications industry. Sudan’s oil sector has boomed, in part due to Chinese support. However, critics say most of the prosperity is centered in the capital, and has failed to spread to rural areas or the country’s other regions.
Al-Bashir is married to his cousin Fatima Khalid, and to a second wife, Widad Babiker. Bashir reportedly has three step-children.
“The NCP is placed to do well in April elections because it controls many of the state institutions,” said Nick Grono, deputy president of operations at the International Crisis Group, an international non-governmental organization that works to resolve deadly conflicts around the world through field-based analyses and high-level advocacy.
“It does give them an advantage”, he said, adding “President al-Bashir is determined to use the elections to establish his legitimacy. ”Grono said it is hard to assess the effect on the election of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for al-Bashir. Two years ago, the court indicted him for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed since 2003 in the western region of Darfur.
Referring to Bashir’s defiance of the warrant, he said, “It may have enhanced his standing among some of the northern electorate, but I suspect a large section of the population are appalled at what happened in Darfur, and believe he has been rightfully indicted by the ICC, and that diminishes his legitimacy.”
He said the observers watching the campaign should focus on the promises that were made about these elections and about opening up the democratic space which he said have not been met.
Al-Bashir has promised to resolve the Darfur conflict through negotiations and to enhance relations with the south, even if it chooses secession in a 2011 referendum. Grono said it is encouraging to see such promises being made.
“Of course the proof is in the implementation, and the history of these promises hasn’t been encouraging in the past,” he said.
In the presidential vote, if no single candidate wins more than 51 percent of the vote, the top two will go head-to-head in a second round.