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December 16, 2010

Southern Sudan Focuses on January Referendum

by Matt Richmond

Voter registration for the referendum on independence in southern Sudan was widely praised, despite a few concerns. Now the south prepares for its January 9th, 2011 vote.

Election observers from the Carter Center announced on Wednesday that the voter registration process in Sudan was credible despite a few weaknesses. The Sudanese Network for Democratic Elections, a group of domestic observers, also called the registration a success.   Registration was a key hurdle for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission and commission officials have made repeated assurances that the January 9 vote will start on schedule.

In the south's capital, Juba, Southern Sudanese are counting down the days until their independence vote. It is the centerpiece of a 2005 peace deal between north and south and southern leaders have warned that any delay in the vote could lead to renewed conflict.

But problems remain before the vote can start. As many as six cases have been filed in Sudan's constitutional court challenging the referendum commission and the legality of the vote.

The court has agreed to hear one of the cases so far, brought by a group of civil society organizations. They claim southerners in the north have been prevented from registering by the southern ruling party.

Chan Reec, the referendum commission's deputy chairman and a justice on the southern supreme court, said the case should have been brought to the commission first. "We will wait and see how the court will decide on that thing but it is a frivolous claim," Chan states.

One of the court cases has the potential to stop the referendum.

The commission is also trying to overcome the huge logistical challenges that slowed the registration process. A little more than one month after the start of registration, more than 100 registration centers are still not in contact with the commission.

Chan said the commission expects to collect registration materials from those centers by Saturday. "We are concerned about these delays and we will find ways to avoid the same problem," he said.

Funding has also continues to be a problem. According to Chan, international donors and the southern government have paid for everything so far and the northern government withheld its share of the funding.