On Sudan’s Polling Day: The Fading Prospects for a National Dialogue

On Sudan’s Polling Day: The Fading Prospects for a National Dialogue

Elections Apr15

Last Thursday, the Sudanese capital boasted a show of force with hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes security elements parading the main streets as President Omer al-Bashir prepared for his final election rally. In his closing statement to his supporters, President al-Bashir vowed to achieve peace by crushing the armed rebellion and reaffirmed that national dialogue would be the only way to resolve Sudan’s conflicts. Throughout election rallies in all 17 federal states, Al-Bashir repeatedly pledged to initiate the national dialogue process once elections were over. According to the regime, the President’s re-election would offer him a new mandate to lead reform and complete the “renaissance” of his 26-year “salvation regime” by creating the political stability required to start a Sudanese-owned National Dialogue (ND).

Asserting the recently invoked concept of Sudanese ownership of the ND process, al-Bashir vowed that the process would be national, stating explicitly that “colonialists” would not be allowed to interfere. Ibrahim Ghandour, Vice-Chairman of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and Presidential Advisor, said the National Dialogue, an initiative of the NCP and the Government of Sudan (GoS), will start in earnest after the elections, only in Sudan. This direct reference to the pre-national dialogue meeting planned in Addis Ababa, which the GoS refused to attend, thus makes clear their intentions all along, despite earlier commitments recognizing the mandate vested by the African Union Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) upon the AU High Implementation Panel (AUHIP) to facilitate this meeting between the GoS and political and armed opposition allied under the Sudan Call Forces banner to agree on the roadmap to and procedural aspects of the process before the launch of the actual dialogue in-country.

The leading opposition parties and members of the Sudan Call Forces, namely the National Umma Party (NUP), the umbrella National Consensus Forces (NCF), a broad Civil Society Initiative, and the armed opposition had made it clear that they would only participate in a genuinely comprehensive and inclusive exercise, not one entirely controlled by the GoS to produce the regime’s desired outcomes, such as the one the GoS ostensibly launched in January 2014 but which it has failed to convene to date.

Stifling Dissent at Home…

Prevented from organizing and speaking out freely by Sudan’s watchful National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), the Sudan Call Forces nonetheless launched a vigorous boycott campaign throughout Sudan. Riot police teargased its peaceful rallies in Dongola, Abu Naama, Sinnar, Port Sudan, Kassala, Atbara, and El-Obied. NISS arrested and unlawfully detained youth activists leading an affiliated “Boycott the Blood Elections” campaign. And in recent weeks, closures and confiscations of critical newspapers and raids on the premises of independent civil society groups, as well as the confiscation of their assets and records, have continued unabated.

Joining this election boycott are several dissident Islamist parties and groupings that had initially agreed to join the regime-led dialogue but were eventually alienated enough by the NCP’s crude manipulative practices in the lead up to polls to decide to stay away from the ballot boxes. These include parties led by former regime pillars and founders, such as Dr. Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP), the Just Peace Forum led by the president’s uncle el-Tayeb Mustafa, and the Reform Now Movement (RNM) established by veteran Islamist Ghazi Salaheldin Attabani.

It is then not surprising that al-Bashir’s staged, final campaign rally has come against a backdrop of domestic and international denunciation of the elections as fundamentally flawed and engineered to produce the results already charted by the regime’s operatives.

…While Courting Electoral Observers From Abroad

Al-Bashir’s words to his cheering supporters at Khartoum Stadium celebrated the decision of the AU to send a high-level observation mission to monitor the elections. Al-Bashir told the crowd that Sudan’s relationship with its African and Arab neighbors and allies are at their best. By referring to the Sudanese “heroes” fighting in Yemen, President Bashir enthusiastically used Sudan’s participation in the Saudi-led alliance against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen as a golden opportunity for his regime to break from the political and economic isolation imposed by longstanding US-led sanctions. The regime is buoyed today by the expectation that multi-billion dollar rewards from its Arab Gulf backers will help it respond more effectively to pressing issues that have drawn huge urban crowds to the streets, protesting critical shortages of drinking water, electricity and cooking gas.

In contrast, the Sudanese opposition, including civil society, as well as regional and international observers, are dismayed that the AU has acted against the recommendations of the technical pre-election mission it had sent to Sudan, which advised against observing the elections due to the lack of a conducive environment for conducting a fair and credible process. The Sudan Call Forces, opposition parties and youth movements in Sudan, feeling betrayed, have condemned the regional institution as they continue the elections boycott campaign.

Despite these calls, to which the EU and Troika have added their critical voices, the elections are gaining legitimacy from not just the AU, but other quarters as well. The Organization of Islamic Conference, League of Arab States, and the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), in addition to more than 20 Arab, African and international observation missions will be monitoring the polls.

The Shape of Things to Come

So assured was the NCP that it would win all 213 National Assembly seats and 468 state assembly ones that, in the run up to the polls, it graciously set aside 30% of the seats for allied parties agreeing to partake in the elections and its well-choreographed ND. Some 44 parties took up this offer, and entered into tough negotiations with the NCP.

The “President’s Men” will use the assured election of al-Bashir to further curb the influence of the old guard of the Islamist movement and consolidate the President’s grip on power, invoking his renewed “democratic” mandate. Only a handful of old NCP faces are expected to survive the post-election reshuffle. This is seen as part of President Bashir’s “reform” plan. In fact, the president had hinted to the consolidation of his individual rule in his speech before the NCP’s Convention in October 2014, in which he promised to dismantle the “centers of power” within the party. Keeping his promise, Bashir pushed through constitutional amendments in late 2014 that gave him the mandate to nominate state governors previously elected by their constituents, pledging to promote new faces to become state governors.

While the regime is expected to adeptly manipulate the distribution of rewards to the loyalist “opposition” in ways that will guarantee the president’s full control; the manner in which it has handled the elections and the national dialogue process is sure to send Sudan down a dangerous path.

In the year since it announced its own dialogue exercise, the regime has failed not only to implement the requirements for a conducive environment for the dialogue but it has failed to even initiate the process. Focusing solely on the elections, the NCP failed to reach cessation of hostilities agreements with the armed opposition, and to guarantee minimum fundamental rights for the political opposition and civil society groups peacefully calling for democratic transformation and the peaceful resolution of Sudan’s many wars through dialogue. And, by declining to attend the pre-dialogue meeting at the invitation of the AUHIP last month, as mandated by AUPSC Communiqué 456, the GoS has weakened the only mediation framework meant to resolve Sudan’s conflicts.

The succession of these setbacks sets the stage for both the aggravation of the chronic political crisis in Sudan and serious military escalation in conflict areas as the soon to be president-elect, backed by a strong security establishment, regains renewed vigor to continue to pursue a military solution to Sudan’s crises. The backing of the AU for the elections and Khartoum’s participation in the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen will further solidify al-Bashir and the NCP’s position not to concede to national, regional and international pressures regarding a truly inclusive ND process. Soon, it may no longer be the regime that is isolated but the forces calling for change, including civil society, the non-NCP affiliated opposition parties, and the armed movements. With the elections now a fait accompli, and the prospects for a genuine process of dialogue getting dimmer and dimmer, Sudan once again finds itself on the brink.

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