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Speculation Swirls Around Withdrawal of Sudanese Opposition Party from Elections

There may be much going on behind the scenes in Sudan after the withdrawal of an opposition candidate from this month’s elections. Yasir Arman of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) has dropped out of the poll, which is scheduled to begin April 11th. The SPLM blames it on electoral irregularities and the continued conflict in Darfur.

Is there more to it?

“I think that at the moment everyone is speculating as to exactly what the SPLM was thinking when they decided to do this,” says E.J. Hogendoorn, director of the Horn of Africa Project for the International Crisis Group.

There’s talk of a backroom deal between the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and the SPLM, he says -- a deal that reportedly called for the withdrawal of Arman in exchange for concessions relating to the 2011 referendum. That vote will determine whether south Sudan breaks away from the north.

“There are a number of issues that are still pending,” says Hogendoorn. “One is the demarcation of the so-called 1956 border, which would be the border for the two countries were they to separate.”

Other issues, he says, include the sharing of oil revenues and rights of citizens. These and other matters would need to be settled “for the referendum process to go forward easily.”

Effect on elections

“Our position has always been that the elections were manipulated by the NCP over the last couple of years to ensure an NCP victory. So, in that respect, it doesn’t really change the election outcome. What it does do, if in fact this is the end of the story…is that it presents this very significant challenge to the northern opposition parties, who had essentially needed the SPLM to organize a united front against the NCP,” he says.

Effect on referendum

There are two different end games at play, says Hogendoorn.

“One is the NCP wants the elections, because it wants to re-legitimize Bashir and it wants to remain in power in Khartoum.”

Bashir’s image has been tarnished by International Criminal Court (ICC) arrest warrants accusing him of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur in western Sudan.

“Our understanding is that if he is to be re-elected that would increase his position vis-a-vie the ICC and pressure from the international community,” he says.

The SPLM wants something else – a referendum in January.

He says the SPLM “basically sees the elections as just another point on the road to the self-determination referendum. So the South, to some degree, is focused still on the referendum, whereas the NCP is focused on these elections. And to some degree that is what’s driving the political calculations.”

The referendum is not a long-term issue, says the International Crisis Group analyst.

“Long-term is a misstatement. This is nine months away. So for the SPLM and the south, the clock is really ticking. This is also one reason why they have resisted calls to postpone the elections. Because their fear was that were the elections to be postponed in order to improve the conditions for them, that could impact the scheduling of the referendum,” he says.

Fear of renewed conflict

In 2005, north and south Sudan signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), which ended a long civil war. But ever since then, many groups and analysts have warned of problems in fully implementing the CPA.

“We are very, very concerned about the possibility of reviewed conflict,” says Hogendoorn.

“A number of our latest reports have highlighted the fact that there are a number of very contentious issues that need to be resolved before the referendum to ensure that it’s held on time. At the same time, the elections themselves are also fraught with all kinds of problems. And, yes, the situation is very tense at the moment.”

And then there’s Darfur

Much of the attention on this month’s elections has been focused on developments in the south. But Hogendoorn says the elections in Darfur are “quite problematic.”

The International Crisis Group recently issued a report on Darfur.

“The elections have been rigged in Darfur,” he says. “And what will happen if the elections occur is that that will basically entrench NCP dominance of the region.”

Hogendoorn describes the situation in Sudan as very, very fluid.

“Things are changing daily, if not hourly,” he says, “and we hope the international community pays attention.”