Sudan goes to the polls on Sunday. The country's first multi-party elections in more than 20 years have produced a bewildering array of candidates running for parliament, president, regional assemblies and state governorships. The contest in Africa's biggest country has produced, perhaps fittingly, what must be the continent's biggest ballot papers.
But if the voting procedure is bewilderingly complex then it is already clear that the result will be straightforward: A crushing win for President Omar-al Bashir, Africa's most wanted man.
It wasn't supposed to be like this.
A year ago Bashir's unofficial pariah status was formalised by the International Criminal Court, which indicted him on seven charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in Darfur. More than two million people are still living in squalid aid camps where they have clung on to life after being bombed and burned from their homes by Bashir's army and air force, or his allies among the Janjaweed - the mounted Arab militias.
Yet the past year has seen Bashir strengthen his grip on power. Minutes after judges in the Hague issued an arrest warrant, the Sudanese president responded by ordering the expulsion of 13 international aid agencies. Western governments and the United Nations cried foul but did nothing as the Sudanese authorities seized millions of pounds of cars, computers and satellite telephones - much of it paid for by international donors.
This year his troops have begun a fresh ooffensive in the Jebel Mara mountains, displacing tens of thousands more civilians as they battle rebels of the Sudan Liberation Army. Another rebel movement has been taken out of the equation, mired in cynical peace talks that lurch from stop to start and back again in Qatar.
And all the while, his henchmen have quietly been making sure that there can be only one winner in the four-day election that starts on Sunday. As the International Crisis Group pointed out in a report last week, the registration process has been skewed to favour supporters of the president's National Congress Party. At the same time, plans to have ballot papers printed outside Sudan have been abandoned, making it easier for blanks to fall into the wrong hands and for ballot boxes to be stuffed with bogus votes.
That's not good enough for most of Sudan's opposition leaders, some of whom have given up and withdrawn from the vote, wary of lending credibility to such a badly flawed process. The one challenger who could have pushed Bashir to a second round is among them. Yassir Arman, of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, the former Southern rebel army, was the one candidate who might have had the clout to attract the support of other opposition groups and give the president a fright.
His decision though is clouded in mystery. Was it really because of shortcomings in the electoral process, or has a deal been hatched to hand the election to Bashir in return for a guarantee that Khartoum will not interfere in an independence referendum in the South next year?
The questions all leave the United Nations and donor governments, who are underwriting peace, in a bit of a pickle.
On the one hand, elections are a crucial step along a map laid down by the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which ended the long running conflict in Southern Sudan. Sudan-wide elections this year are to be followed by that referendum in the South next January. There, voters will be deciding whether their future lies in an independent state, free from Bashir's Islamist-leaning Khartoum government. So if next week's elections fail, the bigger prize of peace and stability in the South, a land racked by hunger, disease and insecurity, could well be lost. Multi-party elections - flawed though they may be - are a step towards a more democratic Sudan and a final resolution of a 20-year war.
On the other hand, the biggest winner is looking like Bashir himself, a man who seized power in a coup and who will use a stolen election to cement his position possibly with a fresh wave of oppression. As an elected leader, he will have a defence against arrest by the International Criminal Court and the confidence to perhaps pursue the conflict in Darfur to its bloody end.
The choice is not a nice one: Cry "foul" and watch a five-year-old peace in the South collapse, sparking a fresh wave of death; or cry "fair" and watch Bashir emerge with a rigged mandate and the knowledge that once again he has outfoxed his opponents.
As so often in Africa, where wars tend to linger without resolution and power shifts from one big man to the next, it is the ordinary, voiceless Sudanese who will suffer. And once again, Western diplomats will try to talk about difficult choices and slow progress towards democracy as if they haven't just been made to look stupid by Africa's most wanted man.
Rob Crilly is the author of Saving Darfur, Everyone's Favourite African War
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