Sudan’s 2015 elections: an ominous deja vu?
Four years ago last month, Sudanese went to the polls in multi-party elections for the first time in over 20 years, as part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The CPA was built around the hope that a process of democratization would end the 22-year civil war between north and south and keep the country united. Over 16.3 million Sudanese registered to vote. International donors poured millions of dollars into the elections and hundreds of international observers were on-hand to witness the polls. Seventy-two political parties registered to contest the campaign and numerous civil society organizations launched voter education campaigns and mobilized to support and monitor what they hoped would be free and fair elections.
With a year to go until the next scheduled elections, the picture looks very different. Three weeks ago, a group of 13 Sudanese civil society organizations launched a campaign calling for “Peace and Freedom” and postponement of the elections in 2015, while in March the UK Government, in a statement to Parliament, said, “Our current assessment is that free, fair and credible elections in 2015 are unlikely without significant reforms.” On the other hand, President al-Bashir, who first came to power in a military coup and is indicted by the International Criminal Court for war-crimes, said in a speech to the National Congress Party (NCP) Shura council on February 8th that the Government would not postpone the elections. With the clock ticking, the burning question is whether elections in 2015 would be good or bad for the prospects of peace and democratization in Sudan.
The 2010 elections included selection of the Presidents and the Legislative Assemblies in both north and south, Governors in 25 states, and State Legislative Assemblies. Officially, President al-Bashir won with 68%, after Yassir Arman, the candidate for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and six other leading parties withdrew because of a lack of faith in the integrity of the ballot. The NCP won 71% seats in the National Legislative Assembly, whilst only winning 37% of the popular vote.
National and international election observers, with the exception the Russian Special Envoy, concluded, as the EU stated, that whilst the elections were generally peaceful, a wide range of deficiencies at every step of the process and a lack of an open political environment “led the overall process to fall short of a number of international standards for genuine democratic elections.” These numerous shortcoming ran throughout the electoral process and cycle and included the lack of political and civil freedoms; imperfect and controversial census and registration processes; widespread disenfranchisement, in particular in Darfur; significant logistical challenges; poor voter education; an ineffective National Elections Commission and a general lack of transparency; lack of control of party financial resources; intimidation and voting irregularities; and weak national and international monitoring.
Given the 2010 experience and the current situation, will elections in 2015 ensure the Sudanese people are able to freely and fairly express their will as the first step towards a peaceful and stable Sudan?
The 2010 elections highlighted that despite the guarantees in the Constitution, other legal frameworks and the actions of the Government and the security services severely undermined the civil and political rights which are the foundations of democracy. The Interim Constitution and the 2008 National Elections Act were both the product of political negotiations under the CPA between the NCP and the SPLM. They therefore had no popular mandate or support from other political forces. Following the secession of South Sudan, despite a lot of noise, the Government has failed to deliver a transparent, participatory and inclusive Constitution-making process. Without a new, publicly-mandated and genuinely democratic founding political document, new elections will lack the necessary political, legal and popular foundation. However, as pointed out by the Sudanese civil society organizations in their campaign, the environment for creating such a document in an inclusive and transparent way simply does not exist.
On 6 April 2014, as part of the process of national dialogue launched by the NCP, President al-Bashir announced new rights and guarantees for political parties. Despite the new rhetoric and the release of some political prisoners, about 30 activists remain in jail. Four members of the Sudanese Ba’ath Party were detained on April 28 in Khartoum following a public talk. The following day, seven more members of the party were detained. Three of them were convicted of breach of public peace and sentenced to 40lashes, as well as a fine of 100 SDG (18 USD). Other political detainees are still held incommunicado, such as Tajeldin Ahmed Arja who has been held since 24 December 2013. Arja was arrested by security authorities after openly criticizing both the Chadian and Sudanese presidents during a conference in Khartoum. Trials are still ongoing against peaceful protesters during September 2013 uprising. In addition, the state of emergency imposed in seven states and the existence of repressive laws such as the National Security and Press and Publications Acts are examples of the lack of a democratic culture, and how the current political system does not guarantee basic human rights and the rule of law. According to a report from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), from May 2013 to May 2014 there were over 90 cases of confiscation and closure of newspapers in Sudan. During the same period, over 40 journalists were arrested or investigated by the security authorities in Sudan. This highlights the lack of media freedom needed to ensure a well-informed population and open debate. Similarly, the space for a plural and vibrant civil society is severely constrained, and many civil society organizations, such as the Sudanese Studies Centre (SSC) and Al Khatim Adlan Center for Enlightenment and Human Development (KACE), remain closed following government-mandated shutdowns in late 2012. The impact of the Public Order Regime and the Personal Status Law show how, despite elections, the civil and political rights of women, a fundamental element of a genuine democratic society, are systematically violated.
Even more damning of the Government’s democratic credentials was the violent response by the security forces to the September 2013 protests in which, according to the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies and Human Rights Watch, more than 170 civilians were killed and hundreds more wounded and arrested. On March 11, the security forces once again opened fire on a demonstration at Khartoum University, killing a student. In this atmosphere of violence and repression, elections with integrity, which help heal the nation’s wounds, are unimaginable.
Just as other legal mechanisms and the security services are used by the NCP to curb democratic rights and undermine any opposition, the structure of the electoral system reinforces its dominance. The election system, including at the state level, favors large national political parties and disenfranchises and excludes minority groups, for example through single seat constituencies, a minimum threshold for parties, and the majoritarian voting system for both the Presidency and governorships. In 2010, despite the mixed single seat and proportional voting system, the NCP secured significantly more seats in legislative bodies than its proportion of the total vote. Defining electoral boundaries and constituencies is also a key issue for minority groups, which must be addressed in an inclusive and transparent way prior to fresh elections. The most obvious example is an unrealized referendum in the Doha Document for Peace in Darfur (DDPD) on the administrative status of Darfur.
The exclusionary nature of the electoral system is exacerbated by the decision-making systems and powers within the executive and legislative bodies, such as the National Assembly and the State Legislatures, which are based on a majoritarian system. Therefore, under the current system, even participating in elections would not give minority groups the opportunity to influence national decision-making processes. Without major political change and widespread reforms, not only will elections in 2015 most likely reinforce an undemocratic system, they will feed the divisions in the country and the fundamental driver of decades of conflict: the exploitation and marginalization of the periphery.
The ongoing war across South Kordofan, Blue Nile and Darfur’s five states is another enormous obstacle to meaningful elections in 2015. Holding an open and competitive ballot with the current levels of violence is politically and logistically impossible in these areas, meaning that millions of Sudanese would be disenfranchised. In addition to the two million internally displaced people in the country, the estimated 600,000 Sudanese refugees living in South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic and Chad would also be denied their rights. Those most affected by the conflict would be excluded from building peace. In 2010, the levels of insecurity and the failure to register significant numbers of internally displaced persons led the Carter Center to conclude that, “with respect to Darfur, the Center cannot endorse the elections in the region as meeting national or international standards”. Conflict Dynamics further argued that, “The 2010 elections demonstrated that the Sudan’s electoral system does not proportionally translate votes into seats.” Given the escalation of conflict over the last year – in which 460,000 people have been forced from their homes, including the recent wave of violence in which another 215,000 more civilians were forced to flee their homes in Darfur alone – the prospects for a free and fair vote in Darfur in 2015 are even bleaker than four years ago. Another three inconclusive rounds of the African Union High-Level Implementation Panel-facilitated talks between the NCP and the SPLM-N in February and April have failed to reach peace. Additionally, the ongoing aerial bombings of civilian areas across South Kordofan and Blue Nile also do not provide much hope for the chances of citizens in these areas exercising their democratic rights in 2015.
Moreover, as seen in the 2011 gubernatorial elections in South Kordofan, the winner-takes-all atmosphere of elections can further polarize communities and spark violence rather than promote peace and collaboration. Another round of flawed elections which excludes the peripheries will reinforce the Sudan Revolutionary Front’s belief that only a military option will bring about change, and could fuel secessionist sentiments among the population in the peripheries who feel excluded and ignored. Precipitated elections could therefore further undermine the stability and viability of the Sudanese state. In addition to writing off a vote in the conflict-affected areas, given the current political context, and the nature of the political parties and electoral system, elections in 2015 would encourage the mobilization of communities along ethnic and identity lines across the country. Far from helping peace and reconciliation this will put further strain on Sudan’s social fabric and increase the existing trends of social polarization and fragmentation. Despite all these obstacles to holding elections with integrity in 2015, these are in fact arguments for more democracy, not less. But building a democracy is more than just a vote.
Reflecting the general opinion of the international community at the end of the 2010 elections, the Carter Center concluded that, “despite their observed weaknesses, the elections are a CPA benchmark and their conduct allows the remaining provisions of the agreement to be implemented.” In short, the prevailing sense was that democracy had to be sacrificed for the bigger political prize of the referendum on the independence of South Sudan, and the vote was little more than a technical exercise that had to be completed. Repeating this mistake, where elections lack integrity, guarantee neither democratic process nor rights, and fail to contribute to peace, is precisely what the civil society campaign aims to avoid. Instead, they are calling for a delay in the elections until the necessary conditions – including a cessation of hostilities and an inclusive, holistic and participatory national dialogue leading to wide-ranging reforms – to create an environment and a system under which all Sudanese can fully exercise their democratic rights are met.
However, just as the 2010 polls were elections without democracy, the NCP-led national dialogue appears to be in fact a monologue, which, under the current structure and conditions, will probably change little. Despite being launched on April 6th by President al-Bashir, surrounded by 83 political parties, already a coalition of 17 parties, including the Sudanese Communist Party, has rejected the process. The Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) declared they have no faith in the dialogue and have called for international mediation. The process also has no space for civil society and social groups or mechanisms for the political leaders to hear the public’s voice. Violence and the displacement of civilians continue across the Darfuri states, South Kordofan and Blue Nile, whilst basic political rights, such as freedom of the press, continue to be systematically curtailed. Unless there are fundamental changes to the NCP-led so-called national dialogue, which transform it into a genuinely inclusive, transparent and accountable process leading to wide-ranging reforms, the possibility of holding elections with integrity in Sudan seem very far off.
The elections, as well as the CPA, the DDPD, the Eastern Sudan Agreement and numerous other peace accords, have failed to address the political, social and economic root causes of decades of conflict in Sudan. The Popular Consultations in South Kordofan and Blue Nile were never completed, while under the Doha process crucial elements such as the disarmament of armed groups, justice and compensation for victims, and the Darfur Reconstruction Fund have not been implemented. Key national and local issues, such as the relationship between the central government and the states, unequal development, land ownership, and the relationship between state and religion have yet to be resolved. Until these issues are resolved, elections will be of no value to creating lasting peace. Without wider reform of other key pillars of the political system, including reform of the security services and of the rule of law, even free and fair elections will be insufficient to guarantee citizens’ civil and political rights. In such political environment the United Nations, European Union, and/or bilateral donors should not fund such elections.
For either Sudanese or international actors to engage in the preparations for the 2015 elections without prior fundamental political change would not just give credibility to flawed elections, but would undermine the possibilities of genuine democratization and lasting peace. The long-term consequences of holding elections in 2015 would be to contribute to violence and instability in the country and the current trends of political and social fragmentation and polarization. Support to future elections in Sudan must be judged on whether these will contribute to peace and genuine democratic transformation: elections are not an end in themselves. It is not therefore elections that need to take place, but a redesign of the relationship between the citizen and the state. Only through fundamental political change and an inclusive, comprehensive and accountable process of national dialogue on how to address the drivers of conflict and ensure genuine governance reform will Sudan achieve lasting peace.