The State Department on Monday called Sudan's national elections an important milestone in the country's peace process, but said the Khartoum government could have done more to assure a free and fair process. U.S. Sudan activists say the vote is a setback for the African country and should have been postponed.
Officials here are acknowledging shortcomings in the Sudanese election process, which they say are understandable given that it was country's first national voting in 24 years.
But they say on balance, the United States supports the decision to go ahead with the ballot, despite full or partial boycotts by some opposition groups.
State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley called the multi-level national elections "an important step" for Sudan.
At the same time, he said the Khartoum government could have done a better job of preparing for the voting, which is a critical prelude to a referendum next January on the political future of southern Sudan.
"There is certainly more that the government of Sudan could have done and should have done to create an appropriate environment for the election," said Crowley. "But beyond that, we think the people of Sudan want to see this election take place. That's one of the reasons why we have supported this election as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. And this election is an important milestone because it is the first of a number of steps that Sudan is going to take in determining it future."
Crowley said U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration is en route back to Washington to report to administration officials after several days of mediation between Sudanese government and opposition officials on pre-election disputes.
He said the United States supports the two-day extension of the vote because of polling place delays and other problems, and said U.S. officials will not make an overall judgment on the fairness of the process until after U.S., international and local observers make final reports.
But U.S. Sudan and Darfur activists are quick to condemn the Khartoum government's conduct during the election campaign, including the exclusion of opposition leaders from the official news media.
John Norris, director of the "Enough" project on Sudan at the Center for American Progress, says it is evident that the election represents a "tremendous lost opportunity" for the people of Sudan and its north-south peace process.
"It has been clear for some time now that the environment for the election in Sudan is neither free nor fair," said Norris. "The national security laws still allow arbitrary detention. Opposition politicians are still arbitrarily detained and fairly regularly so. There is not free access to the media. There is not free assembly. The security situation in Darfur is sufficiently bad that EU monitors pulled out of that area. So I think this is a moment that we should look to with some sadness."
Norris says he can understand why U.S. and other diplomats are eager to call the election acceptable and move on to the business of the January referendum.
But he said it is a "dangerous tendency" that not only assures the secession of southern Sudan, but also sows the seeds of future conflict in the north.
Mark Lotwis, acting president of the Save Darfur Coalition, says he is relieved that there has been no significant election-related violence.
But he criticizes what he calls the "intimidating" presence" at the polls of security forces reporting directly to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and says the Obama administration should declare results of the election illegitimate.