Elections scheduled this April in Sudan represent the first time in a generation that people there will get a chance to choose government leaders. But Sudan's road to democracy is riddled with accusations of corruption, voter intimidation and violence that could threaten to destabilize a fragile peace agreement between North and South Sudan. Sudanese living in the United States are closely watching developments in their country.
Peter Bul fled a life of war and poverty in Southern Sudan to live in the United States. His new life in Chicago, hometown of U.S. President Barack Obama, gives him a perspective on what a democratic vote might mean to the people in his homeland. "You are talking about Southern Sudan. We have never had an election, so people are not aware about how this is going to happen, so a transparent election, to Southern Sudan, I think is going to be hard to implement," he said.
Former President Jimmy Carter shares Bul's concerns. The non-profit Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia will monitor the upcoming elections. When asked if Sudan is ready for elections, Mr. Carter replied, "A lot of people are doubtful about it and we don't have any assurances about it."
A former U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan, Ambassador Richard Williamson, certainly has his doubts. "You do not have the prerequisites for a credible election because there's not freedom of the press or right to assembly," he said.
Pressure on Sudan from the United States and other countries led to the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, between the government in Khartoum and rebels in the south.
Sudanese expatriate Malual Awak explains that in addition to the elections, the CPA calls for a referendum on Southern Sudan's independence. "It spelled out clearly that after a six-year interim period, that Sudan would go into an election, both a parliamentary election and presidential election. Then in 2011, there would be a referendum for Southern Sudanese to decide whether they could be a part of a unified Sudan or they could become an independent entity," he said.
Elections this spring would pave the way for a vote on Southern Sudan's independence, but many Sudanese are skeptical the country's leader, President Omar al-Bashir, will allow the south to separate, if he remains president.
President Bashir is at the center of international concerns over Sudan's election legitimacy. The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Bashir on charges of crimes against humanity related to the ongoing violence in Darfur.
He has stood defiant against the indictment, and, says Ambassador Williamson, is looking at the upcoming elections as a way to stay in power. "One would suspect that President al-Bashir wants an election, hopes it overwhelmingly supports his re-election so he can try to reclaim some of the legitimacy he has lost," he said.
"I think the best way to address it regardless of the charges against al-Bashir or anything else, in Darfur and the rest of Sudan, is to allow them to have an honest and fair election and therefore bring peace," said Mr. Carter.
President Obama says the violence in Darfur amounts to genocide, and it has increasingly isolated President Bashir from the international community. The inability of foreign governments to influence the Sudanese government to stop the violence also has led to concerns about the manner in which President Bashir's government will conduct the upcoming elections. "So the concerns are there's a pattern of delay, denial, and refusing to live up to commitments. So if you have that history with the government in Khartoum, you obviously have serious questions," said Williamson.
Those serious questions linger in the mind of Peter Bul. "There's insecurity now in all of Southern Sudan. There's still war in Darfur in western Sudan, so how are you going to have elections anyway when all of these things are going on?," he said.
The election is currently scheduled for April 11. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement stipulates the elections were to be held no later than July 2009. The current date could further delay the planned January 2011 vote on the future of Southern Sudan.