The slogans are powerful and the issues deadly serious but, if election fever ever hit Sudan, the temperature had long since returned to normal by the time the voting stations opened on Monday.
Most of the major opposition parties boycotted the elections, which were held over three days this week, ensuring that President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in a coup in 1989, will win another term.
Voting was extended on Wednesday to accommodate polling centres that opened late.
Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) feels sufficiently confident that it is not contesting 30% of the parliamentary seats, as an inducement to the splinter parties and smaller movements it has convinced to run in these elections.
The opposition’s “irhal” or “leave” campaign is asking Sudanese people not to vote. Opposition parties are protesting against the restrictions imposed on them and the press, and about the ongoing conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Blue Nile region.
A national dialogue, launched by Bashir in January 2014, was meant to address these issues. But several opposition leaders were detained and a crackdown on the press was intensified; the talks never really got going. The opposition has said it is impossible to hold free and fair elections in these conditions.
Yet, on both Saturday and Sunday, the opposition appeared unable to organise the sizable anti-election rallies it had promised.
On Sunday evening, two hours after the scheduled starting time, only one major politician, Farouk Abu Issa, recently freed from several months in jail and looking frail, had showed up. He sat in the front row with a few dozen supporters at most. It was almost as if the opposition was boycotting its own boycott.
Protest groups such as Girifina and Sudan Change Now have, on a small scale, been more active – holding impromptu seminars in public areas, writing rude slogans on Bashir’s campaign posters or covering photos of his face with red paint, a reference to their claim that these are “blood elections”.
Bashir has been investigated by the International Criminal Court for war crimes in Darfur, although the investigation was suspended in December 2014. “The election will not change anything,” said Amjad Farid, the spokesperson for Sudan Change Now. “Before the elections Bashir had no legitimacy and afterwards he will have no legitimacy.”
Sudan Change Now also travelled to some of the camps that are home to the millions displaced by Sudan’s civil wars. One traditional leader made his frustration clear: no president had come to his area in the southern Blue Nile since General Ibrahim Abboud in the 1960s, he said. He didn’t know many of Abboud’s successors, the man explained, but he knew Bashir because he sent his planes to bomb them.
Bashir’s camp has dismissed opposition claims that the elections are meaningless. Rabie Abdelati, an NCP official, said holding the elections was a “constitutional requirement” and political parties “do not have the right” to postpone the election, as the opposition had wanted. The president has been travelling around the country campaigning and giving his usual fiery speeches. At his last rally, in the Khartoum Stadium, thousands packed the stands. They screamed when Bashir appeared and, with a broad smile, he waved back with his swagger stick.
“I like President Bashir as a president because he works very hard,” said one supporter, Mohamed Abbas. “He makes us more secure. He has served everyone in Sudan.”
Despite all the fervour at the rally, many in the stands left before the end of the president’s speech. With the result beyond doubt despite the opposition’s call for a boycott, the number of people who voted in the three-day ballot matters. In Khartoum, at least, it was difficult to discern much electoral excitement.
Lack of excitement
At the last election, in 2010, there was a sense that a genuine democratic contest – and perhaps even change – might have been possible. The irregularities in those elections were downplayed by the international community because of a fear of putting at risk the upcoming vote on independence for South Sudan.
This time, the atmosphere has been muted. The NCP “has all the power”, said one man, clenching his fist to emphasise his point, “and all the money. What can we do?”
The lack of excitement in the run-up to the vote “is not to do with the campaign from the opposition”, said Hafiz Mohamed, the director of human rights group Justice Africa Sudan. “It’s just people are passively not engaging because they don’t actually see that the process is addressing their problems or serving their interests. There’s no contest; it’s a one-sided election.”
Several Western countries have been critical of the process. The European Union’s envoy to Sudan was summoned after a strong EU statement. Britain, the United States and Norway, known as the troika, stated that the environment was not conducive to credible elections.
Despite frequent anti-Western rhetoric, the Sudanese government is keen to improve ties, in part to get US sanctions removed and the debt burden of more than $45?billion forgiven. Bashir has been strengthened by an improvement in relations with Gulf countries following his decision to take part in the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen.
The Arab League and the African Union are observing the elections, and are more likely to accept the results than Western nations. Results are expected by the end of the month. – © Guardian News & Media 2015