Why Sudan's leading opposition party threw the presidential election.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
April 28 2010 11:54 AM

How To Throw an Election

Why did Sudan's leading opposition party go to great lengths to avoid winning the presidency?

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. Click image to expand.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir

What's Sudan like? It's the kind of place where the leading opposition party will do anything to avoid winning the presidency.

Notwithstanding the best efforts of the opposition Sudan People's Liberation Movement to help him over the finish line, it appears alleged war criminal Omar al-Bashir still may not have received 51 percent of the vote in Sudan's landmark elections. This despite massive rigging and fraud in favor of Bashir's National Congress Party.

Sudan's grapevine was crackling last week with giddy talk that Bashir didn't meet the threshold needed to avoid a runoff election. It was just talk—by the time the results were announced on Monday, the final tallies were fixed to assure the stick-waving field marshal a mandate with 68percent of the vote.

But there is a real chance that even after ballot-stuffing and voting by children, Bashir still didn't make his numbers.

It's funny, but it also underlines just how dead the idea of a united, democratic, and plural Sudan is.

On paper, that's what Sudan's 21-year civil war was all about. More than 2 million people died in that terrible religious-themed conflict between the Muslim, Arab-led north and the pagan and Christian black south. In reality, almost no one in the south bought the unity line except their charismatic (and autocratic) leader, John Garang. Garang, a favorite of the West, negotiated Sudan's 2005 peace treaty, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, that finally ended the war. The document was essentially written to ensure he would be elected Sudan's first black president.

Those were happy days.

But when Garang died in a July 2005 helicopter crash, the Sudanese people were left with an interim constitution built on the fallacy that the black south and the Arab-dominated north would together strive to create a new Sudan.

Instead, Bashir outflanked his southern partners in the new Government of National Unity, denying them control of the key oil and finance ministries (most of Sudan's oil lies in the south) and sowing mischief along the contested north-south border. In the newly autonomous south, the separatism that Garang had forcibly suppressed became, overnight, the region's acknowledged core value.

Which brings us to the elections that concluded April 15. They were sordid. But was the challenge insurmountable?

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.

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