In Sudan, some observers fear the public’s failure to understand how to vote may impede national elections, scheduled for April 11-13.
“Civic education is very poor in Southern Sudan,” said Manyang Mayum, a journalist with The Sudan Tribune. The National Elections Commission, he said, “didn’t carry out the necessary civic education.”
“The majority of people in Southern Sudan are not educated,” said Mayum. He said they only know about the main party in the region, the SPLM (Sudan People Liberation Movement) and they have heard about the [ruling] National Congress party.
“For the people of southern Sudan this will be their first time to vote. I am not sure they even know which box to tick on the ballot paper, since they cannot read.”
According to Mayum, the National Elections Commission (NEC) has failed to carry out voter education.
Markir Thiong, a radio journalist with Miraya FM, said political parties are also responsible: “They have been blaming each other for the lack of development in the region,” he said, “but they have done little to educate the people on the importance of voting or even on how to vote.”
Southern voters are also scheduled to vote in a referendum next year to determine whether the region will become independent, or remain part of Sudan.
Thiong said the media have been fair to the political parties, giving then ample air time. “Our station is doing all it can to make sure all political parties and individuals who are campaigning have an equal share of airtime,” he said. He adds the political atmosphere in Southern Sudan is delicate and any small disturbance can cause instability.
Salva Kiir, the president of the Government of Southern Sudan, has traveled across the whole region “campaigning for democracy and justice,” said Manyang Mayum in a telephone interview from Juba.
Earlier this month, the SPLM said it would withdraw its presidential candidate from participating in the polls, saying the outcome had been rigged by the government – a charge the ruling party denies.
Mayum denied reports that the elections could be postponed, saying that “if the election is pushed back, it will affect the referendum and hence the chances of secession.” Al-Bashir sent just such a message during a recent campaign stop.
The NCP and the SPLM both have reason to support the April polls, said Thiong. In his view, the vote will give al-Bashir legitimacy in view of the war crimes indictment against him from the International Criminal Court over atrocities in Darfur.
However, in early April, Sudan’s leading opposition party candidate pulled out of the election over concerns of voter fraud and insecurity in the Darfur region. Observers say Yasir Arman’s withdrawal will cast further doubt over the credibility of the vote. More opposition parties may join the SPLM’s boycott.
The election and its three days of polling, set to begin April 11, has been billed as a chance to bring democracy to Sudan and start to heal a history of turmoil. From 1983 until 2005, the civil war between north and south killed more than two million people and left over four million displaced.
The presidential, parliamentary and local elections will be the first nationwide vote since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the war. It’s also a step towards completing the transition from an appointed government to an elected one, as outlined in the accord.