Sudan's largest northern opposition party has been dealt a blow by the death of its prominent secretary general, Abdul Nabi Ahmed, as it prepares for the national elections due to be held next year. For VOA, Blake Evans-Pritchard reports from Khartoum.

Abdul Nabi Ahmed, who was killed in a car crash last weekend, was widely seen as a crucial force in helping the Umma Party rally support in the troubled region of Darfur, a traditional stronghold for the party in previous elections.

But, Abdelraham Al-Ghali, deputy secretary-general, says that the Umma Party remains a popular party in Darfur and does not think Ahmed's death will change this.

"There are many Darfurians in the party. All of them are competent, committed and have great support from the grassroots," he noted. "So I do not think there is a serious problem in the Umma Party because all of us our soldiers in this party. Any gap will be filled by any of the remaining members."

In March, the Umma Party threatened to boycott next year's elections, unless Darfur's voters were guaranteed an equal voice. Al-Ghali explains why.

"If you exclude Darfur then this will alienate a very important people from Sudan," he said. "How can a region be excluded from selecting the president of the country and the members of the Parliament? If you decide such important issues in the absence of the Darfurians, then you say to them 'go away' and this will lead to the secession of the region. This would be a very fatal mistake for the unity of Sudan."

It could also hinder the Umma Party from gaining a foothold in government. In the 1986 elections, the Umma Party won 34 out of the 39 constituencies in Darfur, according to  Al-Ghali. This helped the party secure a big enough majority in the country to come to power. Al-Ghali is hoping for a similar success in Darfur this time round.

"During this crisis we supported our people very much and they appreciate our situation and stance for Darfur, so I am not worried about Darfur in the elections," he said.

But Al-Ghali is concerned that the persistent insecurity in the Darfur region threatens to derail the democratic process there. In April, the national census, which was carried out in April, overlooked those people in Darfur who were temporarily living in refugee camps, because of the difficulties in accessing those camps.

Some of  Al-Ghali's concerns are shared by members of the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Party, the southern political party that currently shares power with the ruling National Peoples Congress.

In October, Pagan Amum, secretary general of the SPLM, held talks with Chadian President Idriss Déby to discuss ways of bringing the Darfur crisis to an end.

Sources in the party suggest that the SPLM stands to benefit from peace in the region, as Darfur rebels find solidarity with the former rebels of the south, who waged a 21-year-war against Khartoum before the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005.

The elections are due to held in July next year, but some have suggested that the timetable is too tight and that they will, in fact, not be held until the end of the year.

Elections within the Umma Party will be held in January to decide who will replace  Ahmed as secretary-general. Until then,  Al-Ghali will assume this position.