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US Signals Support for 'Brief' Sudan Election Delay

The Obama administration indicated Monday that the United States would support a "brief" delay in Sudan's elections set for next week, if it would help resolve complaints about the electoral process. The U.S. envoy to Sudan Scott Gration is in Khartoum working with government and opposition party officials on election procedures.

As recently as last week, the State Department had expressed hope that the elections - a key element in Sudan's north-south peace process - could be held, starting this Sunday as planned.

But now, a senior State Department official says the United States could accept a brief delay in the polling - of no more than a month - if it helped assure a free and fair election.

Sudanese opposition groups, complaining of government curbs on campaigning, have threatened to withdraw candidates and boycott elements of the presidential, legislative and local voting.

State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley said Monday that the United States is concerned by "troubling developments," including serious restrictions on political freedom, that have produced uncertainties about the process.

He called for the Khartoum government to "immediately" lift restrictions on political parties and civil society.

"The government of Sudan must also insure that all voters are able to participate in the election by improving conditions on the ground, including in Darfur and elsewhere, and by providing meaningful access to polling places," said P.J. Crowley. "In the end, we will judge these elections based on whether they reflect the will of the Sudanese people and whether they meet international standards for elections. And we are currently seeing disturbing trends in both areas."

The elections, part of the country's 2005 comprehensive north-south peace accord, are a critical prelude to voting next January on whether the semi-autonomous southern region will become independent.

A senior official who spoke to reporters here said that while legitimate concerns have been raised about the upcoming vote, the United States is not interested in a lengthy delay in the electoral process because of, among other things, the need to prepare for the referendum.

The State Department said last week that special envoy Gration was prepared to work through next week's voting to try to resolve complaints about election logistics and opposition access to the media.

Gration arrived in Sudan a week ago and returned there after a weekend visit to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, whose diplomats have also been trying to mediate the election conflict.