I voted for the first time in my life yesterday, in the first Sudanese elections in 24 years. The first vote I ever cast was in an election that is rigged and predetermined. I debated whether I should even cast it because all the opposition candidates had pulled out, and there was so much evidence of foul play during the registration period and leading up to the elections, that it seemed pointless. I voted anyway, partly because my candidate was still on the ballot despite having pulled out, and because I wanted to exercise my right to vote against President Bashir and the ruling National Congress Party (NCP).
The main opposition candidates Yasir Arman running on the SPLM (Southern Peoples Liberation Movement ticket) and Sadiq al-Mahdi (former premier running on the Umma Party ticket) have pulled out of the elections because they felt that it was not going to be fair and that they needed more time to prepare. Opposition candidates were given 10 days to register and had to gather 15,000 signatures from 18 of Sudan’s 25 states in order to qualify. Those who managed to overcome this hurdle and qualify as candidates were then given only four 20 minutes campaign segments on the radio/TV leading up to the elections, while the ruling party reserved the equivalent of 23 hours total in the media leading up to the elections. In addition, the ruling party has used taxpayer money to conduct its campaign, whereas opposition candidates have had to draw on their own party funds, which are much more limited. In general opposition parties were not given the space or opportunity to gather, educate and mobilize its constituencies. Instead they were subject to repressive security measures when they attempted to gather and mobilize. As a result, opposition candidates felt they needed more time to prepare for the elections and demanded that elections be postponed. Their demands were denied and despite all the evidence of foul play, elections began as scheduled on Sunday, April 11th. US special envoy to Sudan Scott Gration shortly before the elections began, even asserted that “They (the electoral commission members) have given me confidence that the elections will start on time and they would be as free and as fair as possible.” The reality on the ground tells a very different story.
On the ground in southern Darfur voter turnout and morale has been very low. It is estimated that 67% of all eligible voters in Darfur were actually registered and of those less than a third turned out to vote. Of those who did vote, many left the presidential ballot blank (which unfortunately could lead to ballots being manipulated) and voted only in municipal elections. For people in rural areas polling stations were simply to far to reach. Near Kalma displacement camp home to over 250,000 displaced Darfurians, people had to wait from 8 am to 4:30 pm for the ballot boxes to arrive. In other areas ballot boxes from Northern Darfur arrived in Southern Darfur prohibiting people from voting. In the town of Nyala, people reported intimidation and foul play at polling stations. In one incident, the ruling party had set up a booth to campaign about 40 meters away from the polling station, threatening some voters to cut off their electricity and water if they did not vote for them. In general, people have reported mass confusion with regard to figuring out how, when and where to vote and sense that people working at the polling stations are pro-ruling party and hence not neutral in their behavior towards voters.
Similarly, in Southern Sudan the SPLM (Southern People’s Liberation Movement)-which has participated in the national government since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the North and South-has evidence that the Election commission is being run by the ruling party. As a result “delays in many polling centers due to technical and logistical issues has led to questioning of the fairness of the elections” according to a Southern Sudanese election observer in Wau, Southern Sudan. She reports that in Torit (Eastern Equatorial State) for instance, people went to polling centers to find that ballots for women’s lists were not delivered. In other polling stations throughout the country voting did not take place, because there were mistakes on the ballot and duplicate names on voters lists. In Wau county, Western Bahr el Ghazal she reports that names were missing from the voters lists and people were being turned away despite evidence that they had registered. In addition, illiterate voters have reported being coerced when asking for instructions on how to complete their ballots.
For people in Sudan and the diaspora, the circumstances surrounding these elections have been deeply disappointing and frustrating to say the least. Many of us feel that we were once again denied a fundamental right and were duped into believing that the Sudanese government was opening up the possibility for people to vote for change. On the other hand, during this process people have been organizing for change at the grassroots level, mobilizing people around the vote and courageously stepping into the public arena to demand change despite repressive backlash. In Darfur, the youth groups we have been supporting have been doing voter education and mobilization work, and have participated in organizing an independent civil society election observer mission. In Khartoum, a youth led movement called Girifna “We are fed up’ emerged during the registration period, mobilizing and organizing people to get out the vote. Young people in Sudan are courageously taking a stand and demanding change, which is inspirational. In both cases, I feel that their efforts have not been in vain because they are building a foundation for change from the bottom-up, which will remain and hopefully grow long after these sham elections are over.
Here is a link to a recent video documenting the work of the Girifna movement: