The real stakes of Sudan's elections

Has Sudan missed the last opportunity to peacefully replace the NCP with a more widely based government?

Sudan’s presidential and parliamentary elections were held from 13 April, and lasted four days due to the low voter turnout. They are estimated to have cost as much as US$600 million and were closely overseen by the country’s omnipresent National Intelligence and Security Service.

These were Sudan’s first elections since the secession of South Sudan in 2011, which led to the loss of most of the country’s oil riches. An expert in Sudanese politics describes the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) as being ‘in survival mode, because it is really tough going economically... living conditions have drastically declined.’

In such a situation, a top priority of the NCP is to demonstrate that it is capable of conducting countrywide elections without any major disruption. It also needs to give the impression, through the smokescreen of elections, that it still has secure bases of popular support beyond the loyal military-security apparatus that has kept it in power for so long. 

For 71-year-old President Omar al-Bashir personally, winning by a large margin would be a show of strength. Al-Bashir seized power in a coup d’état in 1989 and has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. In spite of this, the investigation was suspended in December 2014.

The NCP used a familiar arsenal of arbitrary measures, including intimidation and harassment

By obtaining another five years in office, he will have an entire state structure to help protect him from the ICC – including money, bodyguards, a military and a foreign service with international lawyers.

Ageing al-Bashir had previously hinted that he might not run this year. However, the NCP unsurprisingly chose him as its nominee for the presidency in October 2014. He has again pledged not to run in the next presidential elections in 2020. By then, he will have been in power for nearly three decades and would be 76 years old, but may still not be ready to leave power voluntarily.

And so the NCP created conditions to ensure an outright win in last week’s elections. It restricted the political space for opposition parties using a familiar arsenal of arbitrary measures, including intimidation and harassment. It also tightened its control over an apprehensive civil society, and curtailed the activities of the media. The most vocal opposition parties subsequently pulled out of the elections in advance. They claimed that the rules were written in a way that would ensure an NCP win in what essentially amounted to stage-managed elections.

It should be noted, however, that even the mainstream opposition parties lack strong structures, cohesion and far-sighted leadership, along with a clear strategy on how to mount a serious political and electoral challenge to the NCP. The opposition had boycotted the elections of 2010, in which the NCP had won 90% of the 450 parliamentary seats. In the run-up to this year’s poll, the opposition repeatedly requested that the elections be postponed and demanded far-reaching political reform, which they knew the ruling party would not accept. 

Even the mainstream opposition parties lack strong structures, cohesion and far-sighted leadership

This year’s boycott therefore meant that Sudanese voters were left to choose between the NCP and a multitude of newer, smaller and lesser-known opposition parties, which were unable to campaign effectively because of overwhelming logistical and financial difficulties. Moreover, these parties focused too much on trivial issues centred on personal grievances and were clearly unprepared to assume governmental responsibilities. Local sources further believe some of these parties to have been created by the NCP to give a semblance of an electoral contest.

The outcome of Sudan’s elections is not difficult to predict, even if final results will only be released next week on Monday, 27 April. All indications are that the NCP is assured a clean-cut victory and will retain the presidency. Indeed, al-Bashir will emphatically overcome the other 15 presidential candidates who are unknown to the public. Many Sudanese fear that if the NCP were to lose its hold on power, things could spiral out of control and create more instability, as has happened in Libya or Yemen.

Western countries were unable to apply enough pressure on the NCP for it to conduct more inclusive elections. It seemed they had limited themselves to issuing occasional diplomatic warnings, which had no effect. These countries appeared to be fascinated by the survival instincts and power tactics of the NCP. One sceptical Western diplomat in Khartoum, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that ‘the NCP will stick around for a while. It will not be complacent as it realises that its grip on power cannot survive sudden electoral shocks.’

Al-Bashir argues that the NCP should stay in power to guarantee stability for Sudan

Western countries also seemed to be comfortable with al-Bashir staying in power, given that the opposition offers no viable alternative. There are indications that some of these countries might normalise relations with Khartoum in the near future. Al-Bashir has understood and skilfully exploited international concerns about the future stability of Sudan. He conveniently argues that the NCP should stay in power to guarantee stability for the country, as well as for the increasingly chaotic regions of North Africa and the Middle East, where uncertainty and violence are spreading.

The European Union declined to fund or monitor the 2015 elections, and openly condemned the deterioration of Sudan’s already divided and unstable political landscape ahead of the poll. So, Sudan successfully lobbied the African Union, the Arab League and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development to send observer teams. These teams were more likely to accept the results and were perhaps perceived to be less severe regarding the fairness or transparency of the electoral process.

The elections and the results will only exacerbate the existing political impasse between the NCP and the mainstream opposition parties. On the one hand, the established and better-funded NCP will exploit every opportunity to maintain its 26-year-long stranglehold on power for as long as possible, and at all costs. On the other hand, opposition parties will likely continue to expect very little from periodic elections, and will only seek to undercut the claimed legitimacy of the NCP using whatever means possible. They have already started building contacts with armed opposition groups to forcibly remove the NCP from power. 

As the Western diplomat based in Khartoum put it, ‘There is an uneasy feeling among diplomats here that these elections were a lost cause. It would be better to focus on the 2020 elections, even if it looks like the peaceful way of challenging al-Bashir’s power may have run out.’ Sudan may have irremediably missed the opportunity to replace the NCP with a more widely based government in a non-violent way, and to solve its daunting economic, political and military problems.

Berouk Mesfin, Senior Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Addis Ababa

Related content