Al-Bashir is losing credibility

21 April 2015

The low turnout for Sudan’s recent presidential poll could signal the beginning of the end for the incumbent leader, who has failed to deliver promised reforms

The results of Sudan’s presidential elections, held on 13-16 April, are not yet in, but they are not in doubt. The incumbent president, Omar Hassan al-Bashir, will enjoy a comfortable victory over a large field of unimpressive alternatives.

But despite protestations to the contrary from the regime, the disastrously low turnout has turned the vote into one of no confidence in the man who has led the country for a generation.

Low turnout

In a briefing to journalists at the close of the polls, the deputy chairman of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), Ibrahim Ghandour, declared himself “quite satisfied” with participation in the elections. But even after polling was extended from three to four days, only 30-35 per cent of the electorate voted, according to the African Union (AU).

The result of the elections will be announced on 27 April. If Al-Bashir fails to achieve a majority, there will be another round of voting. This eventuality is unlikely. The largest opposition parties boycotted the elections, leaving those obliged to vote for the regime as the bulk of the ballot-goers.

There is scepticism that even the estimated 30-35 per cent turnout genuinely represents voter participation. Three states – Darfur, Blue Nile and South Kordofan – are in a state of war, and there are widespread reports of deserted polling stations in much of the country.

“I can’t believe more than 10 per cent of those qualified to vote turned out,” says Eric Reeves, a US-based Sudan analyst. “In South Kordofan, no one voted, in Darfur no one voted, and there were boycotts all the way across Sudan.”

The elections had limited support from overseas. The collapse of a proposed meeting in Addis Ababa between the government and an opposition coalition, known as Sudan Call, at the end of March dealt a blow to the credibility of the government’s National Dialogue process.

The government has long promised a National Dialogue to broaden political participation in Sudan beyond the NCP – similar aims to those announced by Sudan Call itself when it was created in 2014. But the regime has never delivered. In shying away from the latest proposed meeting, it has further eroded what little belief the international community had in the sincerity of its reform promises.

If you don’t have enough foreign exchange to buy the critical food staple, you’re in for a world of hurt

Eric Reeves, US-based Sudan analyst

On 24 March, the troika of the US, the UK and Norway – three countries that played a fundamental role in the end of the second Sudanese civil war in 2005, the secession of South Sudan in 2011, and the six-year transition period in between – said a “genuine dialogue” was the best way to ensure a “credible and broadly participatory” election. Khartoum not only failed to deliver this, but also stood firm against appeals to delay the elections in order to make time for the development of a broader political consensus behind the polls.

Fewer monitors

As a result, international monitoring of the elections was thin on the ground. The EU, along with the rest of the Western world, chose not to send monitors. The AU sent a rather apologetic monitoring team just weeks after an internal report to the AU executive advised against it, concluding that the elections did not meet the terms of the organisation’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. “The AU said in March this was precisely the kind of election they don’t monitor,” says Reeves.

The lack of support for Al-Bashir cannot be seen as irrelevant. While a resounding victory at the polls may underline his authority in East Africa, it belies a weakness on the home front that was not nearly so pronounced in the most recent polls, in 2010, when he retained considerable grassroots support. “The papers say he is cementing his grip on power, but it could signal the beginning of the end,” says Roman Deckert, senior researcher on Sudan at Berlin-based Media in Cooperation & Transition development organisation.

The low turnout has been celebrated by opposition parties as a victory. But this ignores the lack of popular enthusiasm for the main alternatives to the NCP. “The super-low turnout of voters cannot be attributed to the opposition boycott,” says Deckert. “Traditional opposition parties such as the Umma National Party cannot mobilise support either. It’s not just the regime but the opposition that has been discredited.”

The lack of a real alternative and the cautionary tale of what has happened in Libya, Syria and Egypt since 2011 do not lend themselves easily to a political transition in Sudan. Despite the travails of Al-Bashir, change could be a long time coming.

“There can be a political dialogue, but if it’s old-school dinosaurs talking away to themselves then they may reach an agreement, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the people on the ground,” says Deckert.

“The political party landscape is likely to become further fragmented into regional and local groups like that of Musa Hilal [who defected in January 2014 to form the Sudanese Awakening Revolutionary Council, and who controls much of North Darfur]. But this only works if you have fighting forces behind you, and that is very dangerous.”

Perhaps the greatest threat to Al-Bashir is the economy. Rampant inflation, debts and the near-exhaustion of foreign exchange reserves mean Sudan can barely afford to buy wheat to feed its population. “If you don’t have enough foreign exchange to buy the critical food staple, you’re in for a world of hurt,” says Reeves. “And it’s only going to get worse.”

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