News / Africa

South Sudanese Prepare for Complex Polls

The regional research group Rift Valley Institute describes Sudan's new electoral system as "one of the world's most complex," saying it is "hard to understand for voters, observers, and even election officials."

For many South Sudanese, April elections will be their first ever.  A network of officials and volunteers are racing against time to educate a mostly illiterate populace on how to vote.

Sitting along the White Nile River on a blistering Sunday afternoon, Edmund Yakani talks of the challenges facing his people as they head to polls next month.

Yakani is the national coordinator for the Sudan Network for Democratic Elections, a civil society coalition of more than 70 South Sudanese groups supported by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute.

Complex electoral system

His network of volunteers has deployed across 50 of the region's 78 counties to educate voters.  The message is election know how at its most basic.  What a ballot looks like, how one votes, where one votes, and for what positions one is choosing candidates.

Yakani says his team has faced a unique set of obstacles. "To be honest, it is difficult, because for more than 50 years we have been in war and have never experienced an election like this election, so it is really very difficult.  Also, the system of elections itself is very complicated.  One citizen casting 12 votes at once is really a challenge," he said.

The regional research group Rift Valley Institute describes Sudan's new electoral system as "one of the world's most complex," saying it is "hard to understand for voters, observers, and even election officials."

Voters in the country's north must cast eight different ballots, but southerners will be casting 12 ballots, three each in four separate boxes, a voting process that could take as long as a half hour for each voter.

Each southerner will be casting votes for two different presidencies, one state governorship, and members of three different legislatures.  Additionally, a portion of the new national, regional, and state legislators must be women, requiring three special ballots, and some legislative seats will be allocated from party lists, also requiring special ballots.

With around three-quarters of the South's population illiterate, election officials are using a system of colors and symbols to mark the political position each ballot represents and who each candidate is.  Each politician and party must make sure their uneducated supporters memorize their specific color and symbol. 

Voter education

A senior official of the South's ruling SPLM party, Anne Itto, is overseeing the party's campaigns in the South.  She says voters on the campaign trail are expressing confusion as election day nears.

"Many people, in fact 80 percent of the people, are still concerned about - not who to vote for - but how to vote," said Itto. "Many, many people are scared when they hear they have to vote 12 times. They say, 'How?  That is too many. I have only one little slip.  Do I tear it up into 12 pieces, or what do I do?'"

Itto called for voter education programs to be ratcheted up before election day, saying the job done so far has fallen short of the need.

The South Sudan election high committee member charged with coordinating voter education, Jabi Jack Ngalamu, rejects claims most of the populace still needs to be educated.

"Most of the areas, in particular the urban areas in South Sudan, have been reached.  Our main problem is the rural areas, the extreme rural areas, where roads are impassable at times, where some areas have to be reached only by boats.  And sometimes our staff have to use bicycles to reach the extreme rural populations to offer voter education," said Ngalamu.

The last multi-party vote in Sudan took place in 1986, while much of the South was at war with its northern rulers.  

Sudan's other years of multi-party democracy all occurred during the 1950's and 1960's - but the South's first rebellion against the North did not end until 1972, when the country was under dictatorial one-party rule.  

While privately a number of outside advisors say the polls will be far from perfect and that serious issues are likely, a number of South Sudanese officials have expressed optimism the vote will for the most part go smoothly.

The election committee says staff at the polling stations will be trained to assist voters who need help, and Sudanese will have three days of voting to find their way to the correct location.

A Government of Southern Sudan voter education official, Afram Wani Peter, says the expected challenges in the poll are not likely to deter southerners from voting.

"You see, southerners are ready to go for elections, because they have suffered and they have seen that the way to freedom is through all these difficulties," said the official.

Although it has been decades since people across the South voted in an election, southerners are to participate in another vote less than one year away.  At that time, the region will choose whether to remain part of a united Sudan or to form its own country.

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