Abundant and timely reporting on the fatally flawed Sudanese elections is, for the regime in Khartoum, an acutely embarrassing development, if gnocidaires can feel embarrassment. A range of Sudanese human rights groups, civil society organizations, and independent observers have offered an extraordinary chronicling of gross electoral violations, deliberate fraud, intimidation, and illegal use of state resources. And thanks to the Internet, these reports can be tabulated, collated, and compared with each other and with the findings of international human rights groups, as well as those of the various “think-tank” reports commissioned over the past year to analyze the prospects for Sudanese elections.
Necessarily, the compilation comprises anecdotal evidence (no truly systematic reporting would have been permitted by the regime), and its topics are heterogeneous—speaking now of ballot boxes with fake seals, on other occasions of intimidation of poll monitors by the regime’s security forces, and in the case of Darfur, of voting that in some camps for displaced persons did not reach three percent. The fraudulent methods are, as they have been reported, at times subtle. In other instances they are shamelessly brazen: in one case the military was spotted hoisting ballot boxes over a wall in back of a polling center, no doubt to be filled elsewhere (the military was to have no role in the elections).
It will take some time to organize and check all these reports, but the upshot is as clear now as when I wrote two weeks ago that the National Congress Party (formerly the National Islamic Front) would win overwhelmingly, and may yet win a “super majority” in the National Assembly. One report from Kassala State in the north has al-Bashir running ahead with 97 percent of the vote; even with a boycott by most major parties, this figure is ludicrous, but may be a harbinger of legislative results to come.
All of this leaves international actors in the position of having to comment on the integrity of these elections. Unsurprisingly, the African Union and Arab League have declared the elections a victory for the “process of democratization,” unconcerned by the most blatant of violations. But the more interesting, and consequential, responses are those that will come from the US, the European Union, and the UN. The State Department has tried, awkwardly, to walk back US special envoy Scott Gration’s declaration that the elections would be “as free and fair as possible.” But given the scale and conspicuousness of electoral fraud, the US is still figuring out how to speak publicly of this travesty. An April 20 statement by the White House “regrets that Sudan’s National Elections Commission did not do more to prevent and address such problems prior to voting.” But this disingenuously shifts the blame by failing to note that the NEC is entirely a creature of the regime, and has acted throughout the electoral period precisely as instructed. Most consequentially, the White House statement makes no mention of what effect, if any, this assessment will have on US policy toward Khartoum and in responding to Sudan’s many crises. The boilerplate of the moment is that the US “remains committed to working with the international community to support implementation of outstanding elements of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.”
The EU sent a team of observers to Sudan, but was forced to withdraw them from Darfur because of insecurity. So far the comments coming from the leader of the EU monitoring team and Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, have been critical of elections in other parts of the country but not in ways that suggest re-voting would be appropriate, or that there should be significant qualification to the legitimacy conferred upon the “re-elected” regime. The UN has quietly acquiesced in the proceedings, deciding not to make any public comment of note.
The bind for the US is highlighted in comments made by former president Jimmy Carter, head of the Carter Center, which alone has had a small, but long-term monitoring presence in Sudan. Carter has backed off his earlier, preposterous claims about electoral integrity; no doubt he was reined in by staff who knew much more than he about what was coming, and reported daunting challenges last summer. But Carter’s insistence that the elections, however flawed, be accepted as legitimate—progress in the “process of democratization”—is the argument that many have taken up and toward which the US leans. Without these elections, the argument goes, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between north and south Sudan will fall apart before the scheduled southern self-determination referendum of January 2011. To preserve the CPA, and to ensure that the referendum takes place without a resumption of war, a completely fraudulent election must be accepted, however unwillingly.
What to make of such an argument? I’ll return to this question soon, but offer two answers at present. First, the international community need not have accommodated such conspicuous and destructive electoral machinations as we have seen. Beginning with the highly compromised census of 2008, pressure should have been building on the Khartoum regime to back off its most distorting and coercive tactics, including bribery on a massive scale and systematic voter registration fraud. When it became evident a year ago that no such pressure was building, Khartoum took this as a signal to do as they wish. And they have.
Secondly, there is a troubling premise in the argument of those who believe that by allowing Khartoum to have its electoral way, by muting criticism of the elections, the regime is more likely to accept a southern self-determination referendum and its results. Of this there is no evidence. The National Congress Party/National Islamic Front regime has never honored an agreement with another Sudanese party—not one, not ever. Why should we think that by even partially legitimizing the presidency of Omar al-Bashir we are boosting the chances for the referendum? This election is to be held in less than nine months, even as critical issues remain outstanding: north-south border delineation, oil revenue-sharing in the event of southern secession, transport and commercial relations between what would be two countries, and issues of citizenship. Khartoum continues to stall on these difficult issues, which must be resolved if there is to be a peaceful referendum vote; yet for more than five years the international community has mainly watched, allowing the electoral calendar to become ever more dangerously compressed.
Without confronting a very different political and diplomatic calculus—including a much more energetic commitment to governance, development, and security issues in southern Sudan—Khartoum will act in ways that will almost certainly lead to precisely the war Carter and others, in defending Sudan’s electoral exercise, declare themselves to be so fearful of. Continuing acquiescence isn’t a strategy, but simply—for the moment—the path of least resistance.