Can you imagine Slobodan Milosevic running for president in Srebrenica? The world would have been justifiably outraged. Yesterday, however, indicted war criminal Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir visited El-Fasher, the capital of North Darfur. While not an official campaign appearance, the trip comes three days after Bashir received the formal presidential nomination of his party in the upcoming elections in April. It is long past due for the world - and particularly the United States - to express its grave concern about the sham electoral process that in a few months could effectively legitimize Bashir's repressive government.
This week at a campaign stop, Bashir vowed to his supporters that the elections would teach the world lessons in dedication and sacrifice. What they are really teaching the world is that a dictatorial and even genocidal regime can forgo its commitments to peace and democratic transformation without suffering any consequences. These elections did not fall from the sky, but - instead - were supposed to be a key milestone in transforming the country after decades of civil war. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) agreed to by Bashir's party and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) in 2005 set a path for the Sudanese to rebuild their political institutions, economy, and society.
The death and destruction in Darfur and continued repression of political opponents by the Bashir regime over the last four years vitiated the CPA-inspired hopes that those in power in Khartoum had disavowed intimidation and violence as the chief means to resolve political differences within Sudan. But despite the lack of basic political freedoms and the insecurity that persists in Darfur, the Bashir regime now promotes these elections as a critical moment in the history of Sudan. Their strategy cannot be any clearer: use these elections to consolidate power within Sudan and re-legitimize themselves in the international community.
While Milosevic attempted to steal the Serbian elections in 2000 after a decade of bloodshed in the Balkans, he could not campaign in Srebrenica, the site of the worst massacre during the civil war because Bosnia had gained independence. In stark contrast, Bashir's visit to Darfur serves as a pre-election victory lap at the scene of the crime. Indeed, his regime has declared that Darfur is now safe enough for elections to take place and, if that's the case, it follows that the conflict must be over. Despite clashes this week between rebel forces and the Sudanese army, violence over the last two years has significantly diminished in Darfur. The clever 2010 election strategy though by Bashir attempts to hide the fact that 2.7 million Darfuris remain displaced, a peace agreement with the Darfuri rebels remains elusive, and Bashir and others perpetrators of war crimes remain fugitives from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in Darfur.
Furthermore, The Carter Center, which will monitor the elections in April, reported last month that many Darfuris chose not the register due largely to the presence of Sudanese government armed forces at numerous registration sites, in addition to the wariness about participating in a less than free and transparent election process. A solution to Darfur in 2010 cannot emerge from the ballot box but must come from real negotiations between the Sudanese government and divided rebel movements - who also must set aside their personal and political differences to negotiate a political settlement in the best interest of the Darfuri people.
Due to the lack of a safe political environment for freely contested elections, few in Sudan doubt that Bashir will win re-election in April. The real question for Sudanese opposed to this outcome: how will the world respond? The Bashir regime believes that it can secure quiet acceptance of the results in exchange for promises that it will bring the conflict in Darfur to an end and allow the people of South Sudan a vote for secession in January 2011. In short, Khartoum is bargaining conflict management and prevention for re-legitimization in the international community. To add serious injury to this equation, Khartoum has a history of empty promises that deliver anything but the pledged outcome.
If we were not so deeply familiar with the history of conflict in Sudan, such a deal might seem plausibly adequate. Unfortunately though, accepting this offer from the Bashir regime ignores the chief drivers of conflict in Sudan for the last 50 years: the monopolization of power and wealth at the center and the marginalization of the periphery. The consequences of allowing the regime to steal the elections will not address the root causes of the conflict in Darfur or other persecuted areas of Sudan. And even if the South secedes in 2011, a re-legitimized regime in Khartoum will no doubt cause it endless troubles.
It is for all of these reasons that the international community, led by the United States, should state clearly that it will not allow these elections to change the way it views the corrupt and repressive regime in Khartoum. Of course, conflict management in Darfur and the implementation of the CPA should continue, but not under any illusion that those in Khartoum serve as a representative and reformed government of the Sudanese people.