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Sudan Election Problems Spark US Fears of Unraveling Peace Deals

Growing problems with Sudan's upcoming election are sparking fears of more instability in the volatile and fragmented country. The U.S. government has been involved in trying to bring about what it calls a credible election to normalize the situation, but analysts in the United States fear it could have the opposite effect.

Partial and full boycotts are being announced by parties opposed to the president's National Congress Party (NCP) for the April 11 to 13 vote.

This comes as Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir warned that if the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), which now rules in the south, boycotted the election, he would reject the planned referendum on southern secession in January 2011.

The SPLM candidate for president, Yasir Arman, has pulled out because his party says conditions are not set for a fair vote. But the party has said it will contest parliamentary and municipal polls everywhere except in the troubled western Darfur region, where registration has been scarce and violence persists.

Terrence Lyons, a Horn of Africa expert at George Mason University, says he fears the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed in 2005 between the southern SPLM rebels and the ruling NCP ending more than two decades of war, could be derailed. "I think the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was an extraordinary accomplishment and that needs the attention of the international community so that all the hard work that went into negotiating that agreement is not lost," he said.

J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, sees what he calls a 'train wreck'. The agreement, known by its initials, CPA, initially called for elections in 2008. "If the CPA had been adhered to in the spirit and the letter which it was crafted, the election should have been held two years ago, which would have given a national government of unity that would have been credible a three-year period leading up to a referendum," he said.

U.S. special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has been very busy in recent days in Khartoum meeting many government and opposition leaders in a bid to rescue the election. In the past few weeks, he has also been trying to help get a comprehensive peace deal for Darfur, and make sure the north-south deal stays on track.

Steven McDonald, the consulting director for the Africa program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says it is not clear which U.S. approach can be effective in reaching these goals. "It remains for the administration about how to play it, whether it is a carrots or a stick approach, and that does not come out clearly to the outside observer like myself, as to where the administration has settled, what leverage does the United States really have, how much is it coordinating with the international community on this," he said.

A joint statement released by the U.S., British and Norwegian governments this week expressed concern over the election, conditions on the ground in Darfur, and the slow implementation of other parts of the CPA, like border demarcation. Britain is the former colonial power, while Norway is a main provider of aid.

Further complicating negotiations is last year's indictment of Mr. Bashir by the International Criminal Court in the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur. Envoy Gration has said the Sudanese president should respond to the charges, which he has rejected as a western conspiracy.

The court's prosecutor said last month an election in Sudan now is like what it was in Nazi Germany. Mark Davidheiser, who heads the U.S.-based Africa Peace and Conflict Network, says such statements are not helpful. "Given the man's world view and his cultural perspective and background that is just going to stiffen his resolve to resist. And, it is not going to have any productive impact at all," he said.

Davidheiser recently organized a public forum about Sudan, and several other organizations are planning similar events in the days ahead in the United States, amid growing uncertainty over the future of a country that has greatly worried Africa policy makers, activists and experts alike.