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April 09, 2010

Sudanese Head to Polls As Southern Independence Vote Looms

by Alan Boswell

Sudanese head to the polls Sunday for what is the first democratic vote in in the country in over two decades. The vote is the final major milestone in a 2005 peace agreement before South Sudan votes on whether to form an independent state.

Political candidates in Sudan have wrapped up their campaigns, and on Saturday South Sudan's capital laid relatively quiet just one day before the semi-autonomous region's first peacetime election in decades is to take place.

South Sudanese president Salva Kiir told reporters on Friday that South Sudanese would vote for him to stay in power because his party of former rebels will keep the hard-won peace. "My message throughout my campaigns has been the maintenance of peace and stability throughout the country. Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the lives of our people have changed tremendously from worse to better and no amount of intimidations can drag us back to war again," he said.

For his final rally, the Southern leader chose the burial site of his revered predecessor, the late John Garang, who founded and led the southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement until his shocking death just months after signing the peace deal.

The key provision in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between Garang's rebels and Omar Hassan al-Bashir's government is a landmark referendum granting Southerners the right to politically separate from Sudan next year. These elections were inserted into the period before the secession vote, but with opposition boycotts and allegations of vote rigging in the north and no strong organized opposition in the south, both ruling parties look set to retain power for the final stages of the peace deal.

Mr. Kiir said that a likely victory for Bashir, who was indicted last year on Darfur-related war crimes by the International Criminal Court, will have little effect on the peace process. "If he wins the elections, he is going to continue as the president of the Republic of Sudan, and the relations between the north and the south will remain the same, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement will continue to be implemented up to the end of the interim period where the people of Southern Sudan will have to go to the exercise of the referendum. So, nothing will change. It will be the same spirit that will continue to implement the agreement," he said.

The lead-up to the polls has been chaotic, as the opposition announced, unannounced, and re-announced a dizzying array of boycotts. Two out of the handful of significant northern opposition parties are still participating in the polls, but most of the rest of boycotting the vote, including most of the South's SPLM candidates running in the north. But, adding to the electoral confusion, Mr. Kiir and other SPLM officials have refused to endorse the northern boycott, saying that it was decided without the consent of the party's top political organ, who only decided to pull out of the presidential race and the elections in Darfur.

Analysts say that the apparent split is a sign that SPLM's south-based leadership has already started looking ahead to the prized referendum. Mr. Bashir had threatened the SPLM that if they refused the elections, he would refuse to hold the Southern independence vote.

The two parties still have not agreed on a finalized border in the case of secession, nor on what is to happen to the revenue from oil produced in the south, where most of Sudan's oil lies.

Two million died during the two-decade conflict between SPLM and Khartoum.