Former US president Jimmy Carter visits a polling station in Juba in southern Sudan, 13 Apr 2010
Former US president Jimmy Carter visits a polling station in Juba in southern Sudan, 13 Apr 2010

Sudan's first multiparty vote in 24 years has been marred by opposition boycotts and allegations of vote rigging. But former U.S. President Jimmy Carter says that elections in Sudan, though flawed, are an important step in the peace process between north and south Sudan.

In an interview within Juba's fortified U.S. residential compound, the former U.S. president - whose organization The Carter Center is monitoring the elections - acknowledged that there were obviously some problems in the lead-up to the polls, but would not say that the credibility of the elections has already been "destroyed."

"I wouldn't say, in advance, that the integrity of the election has been destroyed, but I'm not going to make any comment about that until after the election process, the vote tabulation is complete," he said.

Only two of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir's main opposition parties are fully contesting the vote. The rest have announced boycotts, citing electoral manipulation on the part of Bashir's National Congress Party, which they say has already demolished any chance of the ongoing vote being free and fair.

The think-tank International Crisis Group has also denounced the credibility of the elections, saying in a briefing that the NCP has "manipulated the 2008 census, drafted the election laws in its favor, gerrymandered electoral districts, co-opted traditional leaders and bought tribal loyalties."

In a March report, The Carter Center also said that the NCP was illegally using state resources to campaign and that the state was continuing to restrict freedom of speech and assembly.

Speaking to reporters on Monday in Juba, Mr. Carter said that the boycotts were a setback, "but not a bad one," saying that all the candidates remain on the ballots for the voters to choose.

In the interview, he expounded.

"If the parties withdraw at the last minute, I don't say that that undermines the credibility of the election.  That was a choice for them to make.  I regret those choices.  And we've met with almost all the top leaders and I've made my views plain that I thought they should have stayed in and contested and let us decide later whether the election had integrity," said Mr. Carter.

He also talked about the western region of Darfur, where a number of the internally displaced never registered to vote and where critics of these elections say free and fair elections are not possible.

"It's regrettable what's happening in Darfur.  And, it was known that Darfur would be a troubled area before the election was planned.  And, so nothing serious has happened since the election process has began that has changed the situation in Darfur," he said.            

These elections in Sudan are part of a 2005 U.S.-brokered peace agreement between Khartoum and the south's Sudan People's Liberation Movement rebels, who were granted semi-autonomous control of South Sudan. The peace deal also grants the South a referendum, early next year, to decide whether to secede and form its own country.

The SPLM rebels' tenacious founder, John Garang, tried to build the south-based rebellion into a national movement and many believe he would have contested against President Bashir for the national seat.  But he died in a 2005 helicopter crash, and his successor, Salva Kiir, appears focused solely on the independence referendum.   Kiir decided to run to retain his spot as leader of South Sudan, foregoing the national presidency race.

Angry northern opposition parties, led by the Umma party, are openly accusing the West, and the United States, in particular, of supporting flawed elections in a bid to pave the way for the promised independence vote in the South.

Mr. Carter say that such criticism is unwarranted, warning that a failure to hold these elections would result in a breakdown of north-south peace.

"I don't understand what the Umma party would advocate we do.  If we ignore the election, then that would mean that the entire Comprehensive Peace Agreement would have to be abandoned. It's an integral part of it," said Mr. Carter.

The former American president predicts that, if the peace agreement falls apart and the southern referendum does not take place, there will be "another outbreak of war." Two million people are thought to have died in the two-decade conflict, mostly southerners.