Election Chaos in Sudan: Politics or Principle?

06/01/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Late Wednesday night in Khartoum, the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) announced that it was withdrawing its candidate for national president of Sudan, Yasir Arman, reportedly because the SPLM was convinced the elections were too flawed to move forward and they did not want to legitimize a process that led to the re-election of President al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal.  Today, three of the major Northern parties, the Umma Party, the Democratic Unionist Party, and Communist Party joined the boycott of the presidential election.

The SPLM also announced that it would suspend its campaigns for national legislative seats in Darfur, where it likewise says that free and fair elections cannot take place.  This week, a report from the International Crisis Group highlights just how heavily Bashir's National Congress Party (NCP) is depending on Darfur to deliver votes for it and the lengths to which it has gone to ensure that those results are delivered.

We at Save Darfur have long said we do not believe free and fair elections are possible given the oppressive political environment that has preceded them.  But the SPLM's decision was curious for two reasons.  First, the timing: the SPLM made its decision a day before all the opposition parties were to meet to decide whether they would likewise boycott the presidential election (which 3 of the major 4 now have).  They, however, claim to have been blindsided by the SPLM's announcement and one opposition leader said they had been "betrayed" by the SPLM.  So this does not look like it was a coordinated decision intended to completely undermine the (already badly flawed) electoral process.

The second reason the SPLM's decision is intriguing is that they have decided to participate in legislative elections for the national legislature (except in seats in Darfur, and perhaps some northern seats).  One would think that if the SPLM felt the process was as flawed as they argue, that the legislative elections would be just as corrupt.  However, here the SPLM is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  First, earlier this week, Bashir threatened to cancel the referendum on southern independence (scheduled for January 2011) if the SPLM boycotted the elections; second, the SPLM wants to ensure it receives at least 26.5% of the seats in the national legislature, which would be enough to prevent the NCP from unilaterally changing the constitution ahead of the referendum.  So while the  SPLM may want to make a political statement about the fairness of the elections, they clearly want to hedge their bets.

One rumor which, if true, would be wildly explosive is that the SPLM cut a deal with the NCP to withdraw Yasir Arman (the competitor most likely to bring Bashir into a runoff vote), in exchange for Bashir's promise not to interfere with next year's referendum.  It may not be as far-fetched as it seems: the SPLM has always been lukewarm about competing for the presidency -- if they won, it would be their responsibility to make national unity attractive and with the SPLM intent on turning Southern Sudan into an independent state, this would be at the least an inconvenient situation.  Second, the fact that they nominated Yasir Arman, a capable politician, but an SPLM member from northern Sudan, may underscore the fact that they never truly wanted to compete in the national election for president -- all the more well known SPLM members are running for posts in the Government of South Sudan.

This is not to say that the SPLM is off base on its position that the elections will not be free and fair; in fact, they're quite on point.  But it's too simple to say that this is a position simply of principal, when the SPLM clearly wants to have it both ways -- participate where they need to; make a political statement (and perhaps a political deal) where they don't.

As Special Envoy for Sudan Scott Gration undertakes shuttle diplomacy within Khartoum in the coming days, the U.S. must take the position that any boycott by the SPLM and other opposition parties only underscores the inherent inequalities in the electoral system which favor the NCP.  Thus, any results from a boycotted election and/or an election that takes place in the current oppressive environment should not be allowed to legitimize the winner; in this case, President Omar al-Bashir.

Cross posted on the Save Darfur Coalition's blog.