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Voters Frustrated by South Sudan Polling Stations

  • Alan Boswell

Vote counting began Friday in Sudan after the nation wrapped up five-long days of polling. Sudan's first multiparty vote in 24 years was mandated by a 2005 peace deal, but the vote has already been tarnished by opposition boycotts and allegations of electoral rigging. Starting in the village of Terekeka, our correspondent recounts the five-day voting exercise in South Sudan, where mishaps marred but did not destroy the region's new democratic hopes.

A line of voters had already queued up in front of the polling station in the center of South Sudan's Terekeka village by the time we pulled up at 9 a.m., just minutes before the station opened late. The first voter walked into the makeshift polling structure, a colorfully-constructed hodgepodge of fabric shaded under a looming neem tree, and the process of finding his name among the list of 800 began.

Standing near the back of the line, government employee Joseph Kulang Akech explains why he is among the early attendees of this multi-day voting exercise.

"I came to vote early this time because I've been waiting for this day," said Joseph Kulang Akech. "This is my first time to stand in an election line."

He predicted he would be waiting an hour and a half to get to the front and the cast his ballots, but he was likely being optimistic. Polling officials here had received some training, but were clearly still getting comfortable with the process themselves. For most of the voters, this was their first ever experience with a democratic process. Many have never even held a pen before in a country where the majority of the population is illiterate.

When asked one hour into voting how all had gone so far, the polling chief here was already recounting how one voter had spoiled his first ballot by checking every single circle. Otherwise, he said the initial hours were going smoothly. But this Terekeka station was to prove an exception.

Lingering a few meters away was Ezivon Taban Peter, a polling chief who said his nearby station had yet to open, as one set of the 12 different ballots papers had never arrived.

"We are looking for help from the persons concerned - that is the state officers and the national officers - to help us," said Ezivon Taban Peter. "That mistake was done in Juba during the packing. So I want to find out from them how will they come and correct the mistake immediately because we wanted to start."

Back in South Sudan's capital, Juba, a few hours later, chaos was the norm.

At a polling center across on off one of Juba's few paved roads, a crowd of vocal Sudanese were searching futilely for their names. One disgruntled member of the simmering mob of would-be voters, Edward Kasran, tried to explain what was going on.

"My name is not on this list," said Edward Kasran. "Later on they said another team who is coming. The other team came with papers, my name is not there. Now, we are asking them, 'Where are our names?' and there is a multitude here."

I headed inside the nearest polling entrance to try to track down the source of the mayhem. James Kenyi, the senior election staff there, explained that the polling center was missing one whole set of polling officials, as well as the list of 796 names assigned to them.

"Our only issue is we are lacking one team, and that team is making us trouble," said James Kenyi. "The people who haven't got their names are supposed to go under that team. And that team is not around here."

Though dizzying, this was not nearly the most dysfunctional of Juba's polling centers found that day. At one, polling officials were simply lounging around a barren station, lacking any voting booths, tables, or ballot boxes. When I returned later that week to ask how the day had finished, the polling official in charge said the station had finally opened just a half-hour before the polls were set to close.

Deputy secretary general of the South's Sudan People's Liberation Movement, Anne Itto, was not amused by the confusion, which she blamed on a National Election Commission based up in the north's Khartoum.

"There are so many things NEC could have done properly if they really cared," said Anne Itto. "I really feel like there is some element of negligence."

Three days later, at polling stations across the South, the bustling disarray had been replaced with something else - an eerie desertion. Voting numbers plummeted. Southerners have their own theory as to why the flow of voters cut off with only around a half of registered voters participating. Barjok Madwok, the head of a Juba polling station, elaborates.

"The number basically dropped down because many people did not find their centers," said Barjok Madwok. "They are registered, and they are now roaming about searching for the places. Myself I searched my name for three days, and I got it the third day. The center I registered at did not provide my name. I went there and saw the list, but my name was not there. This now frustrated many people. People are really willing to vote."

With all the challenges they faced, Itto said southerners should be proud of holding what was a mostly peaceful voting period in what can be a highly volatile region.

"Those who came to vote have sent a message to the world," said Itto. "Particularly in the south, the people have told the world that they are ready to embrace democracy, they are ready to vote freely, and they are ready to tolerate differences of opinion without fighting."

The fear here now, as centers across the nation begin hand-counting the ballot slips, is that this week's earlier mess might bear an unwelcome repeat.