How To Throw an Election
Why did Sudan's leading opposition party go to great lengths to avoid winning the presidency?
The antipathy for Bashir and his National Congress Party, while not universal, is such that all of Sudan's northern opposition groups—even those whose leaders had themselves presided over atrocities against the south—would probably have coalesced around the SPLM's candidate in a presidential runoff. And, despite the rigging, the SPLM could have won it all.
But the southern-based leaders of the SPLM don't want to rule Sudan; they want to live free of it in an independent state. Their eyes are on a January 2011 "unity" referendum in which southerners will vote to break the country in two. Faced with opponents capable of doing anything—really, anything—when their interests are threatened, the SPLM candidate, Yasir Arman, withdrew from the race 11 days before polls opened.
Arman, a leader of the party's northern wing and one of the first Arabs to join the black-led rebel movement, cited vote rigging as his reason for quitting the race, but underlying his exit was an unspoken fear by the party's southern-based politburo that he might actually win.
The problem was that an Arman victory would have been based in large part on southern votes, which would have left him the minority president of a rump Sudan after the south's inevitable secession.
A couple of years ago, I had tea in Khartoum with Fathi Khalil, a leading Islamist who was then the head of Sudan's bar association and who is today the governor-elect of Northern State. I interviewed Khalil at a time of growing tension and a military buildup along the north-south border. Even as the civil war antagonists were preparing for renewed conflict, I wrote, their political wings were working toward an electoral partnership that would keep each in power.
"I know it is something the National Congress Party would like very much," Khalil told me then.
And that's what's happened—cold-hearted collusion between bitter enemies. The Islamists who run the NCP have one core interest—keeping and monopolizing power in the north. The SPLM has one core interest—a peaceful secession from Sudan. Everything else is negotiable.
That's why Salva Kiir, the SPLM leader and the future president of an independent South Sudan, says he cast his ballot for Bashir—and why he publicly rebuked the SPLM's northern wing for joining an opposition boycott of parliamentary and local races that had been rigged by the government. It was a bitter pill for these politicians, Arabs, and other northerners who bucked their communities to make common cause with Garang and his vision of a New Sudan. After 2011, they'll be living behind enemy lines.
Arman's withdrawal helped the south by ensuring Bashir would win. But the pullout by the other northern SPLM candidates damaged the credibility of the entire election and, by association, the government that will in one year preside over the division of Sudan and the birth of a new African state.
Sudan is the kind of place where winning your freedom means throwing a fight—and throwing over your friends.