A prominent politician from southern Sudan has announced he is creating a new party to challenge the dominant Sudan People's Liberation Movement in upcoming elections.  SPLM officials are downplaying the significance of the move.

Former foreign minister Lam Akol says he is creating the new party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement - Democratic Change, because the government of southern Sudan, dominated by the original SPLM, has failed to be effective since a 2005 peace agreement established the semi-autonomous region.

Akol criticized SPLM chairman Salva Kiir, who serves as president of southern Sudan and vice president in the national government, calling his leadership "bankrupt" and "undemocratic."  

SPLM officials have played down the importance of Akol's announcement.  SPLM spokesman Yien Matthew said anyone is welcome to form a political party, but that it should not use the SPLM name.

"Lam can make a party, but it would be better if he gives the party a different name, and not the SPLM, because Lam was not even a pioneer, he was not there when the SPLM was established and so he cannot take the name and the history of the SPLM as if there is a split in the SPLM," said Matthew.  "This is not a split."

Matthew says Akol was removed from the party three weeks ago, and the SPLM is taking legal action to prevent him from using the name in the new party.

SPLM officials have also suggested Akol's party is backed by the northern National Congress Party, led by president Omar al-Bashir.

"The SPLM is aware of the money he got from the NCP," he said.  "The SPLM is aware of the support he is getting from the NCP, and we shall publicize it very soon, in due time."

At least one senior NCP official has publicly welcomed Akol's new party.  The new party says it includes prominent members from the south, but Akol has not provided any names.

Akol has long had a fractious relationship with the rest of the SPLM.  In 1991, he joined other leaders in the SPLM - then the main rebel group in southern Sudan fighting against the northern government - in forming a breakaway group.  The split led to a wave of clashes between southern factions.  Much of the violence had an ethnic angle, and its repercussions can still be felt in tribal tensions in the south.

Akol later rejoined the SPLM, and was appointed foreign minister in the national unity government that was formed following the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the north-south war.  But he was removed in a cabinet reorganization in 2007.  Since that time, he has often been accused of being close to the National Congress Party.

National elections in Sudan are set for February 2010, but few preparations have been made.  In particular, southern leaders continue to dispute the legitimacy of last year's national census, claiming the results undercount the number of southerners in the country.