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Now the election is over, will Sudanese get back to the real business?
16 April 2015

The contrast between this week’s elections in Sudan and those in Nigeria a few weeks ago could not have been greater. In Nigeria, the contest was fierce though largely peaceful, with enthusiastic participation by the electorate effecting the country’s first democratic change of power.

In Sudan, the election was boycotted by most major opposition parties and candidates, and was therefore so poorly contested that voters largely could not bother to cast a ballot. So much so that in spite of giving the electorate three days to get to polling stations, the government extended voting by another day to try to register a credible turnout.

The result, in any case, seemed inevitable: overwhelming victory by President Omar al-Bashir, extending his 26 years in power by another five, and a slightly less overwhelming win by his ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The only real question that seemed to remain is what impact the election would have on the national dialogue, which was the elephant in the room in this poll.

Bashir had announced it in January 2014, seemingly pressured by several factors. These were mainly the bold and unexpected protests in the streets of Khartoum and elsewhere by ordinary citizens struggling to make a living; the continuing rebellions in the outlying states; and the increasing solidarity of a parliamentary and armed opposition uniting against the government.

The national dialogue was the elephant in the room in this election

But the national dialogue really didn’t seem to go anywhere after that, despite some meetings and the formation of a National Dialogue Committee. Bashir seemed to show bad faith in the dialogue by arresting some leading opposition figures and widening the powers of the already-powerful security apparatus.

But it was the government’s decision to proceed with this week’s elections that really provoked the opposition to boycott the event. They saw it as a betrayal of the roadmap that the government and all other stakeholders had signed last year. The document included a clause stipulating that election procedures needed to be reformed, implying that the conclusion of the dialogue should precede new elections.

The government retorted that it was the opposition that had delayed getting the national dialogue off the ground by prevaricating over its representation. Government argued that this had made the elections necessary to prevent its constitutional mandate from expiring.

Mariam al-Mahdi, Deputy President of the opposition National Umma Party, said the elections were ‘fake’ and that the result had been decided in advance by the NCP – including its decision not to contest 30% of the seats in favour of smaller, mostly proxy parties, which would have lent credibility to the outcome. She described the elections as a disguised effort by Bashir and the NCP – at the entire country’s expense – to resolve conflict in the ruling party between Islamists and militants and between different Islamist factions.

They saw it as a betrayal of the roadmap that government had signed last year

Nafie Ali Nafie – former presidential advisor and still one of the most powerful figures in the country – countered this. He said that with the opposition’s demand for government to hand over power to a transitional government before the national dialogue could begin, it had hoped to topple the NCP without mobilising the necessary support.

For Western governments supporting the African Union’s (AU’s) efforts to mediate change, the tipping point came when the NCP decided not to attend a meeting of all stakeholders in the national dialogue.

The meeting was convened by AU mediator Thabo Mbeki on 29 March in Addis Ababa, and was aimed at preventing the elections from derailing the dialogue. The European Union saw this as a sign of the ‘failure to initiate a genuine national dialogue one year after it was announced by the government of Sudan’ and added: ‘When dialogue is bypassed, some groups are excluded and civil and political rights are infringed, the upcoming elections cannot produce a credible result with legitimacy…’

The international ‘Troika,’ comprising the United States, United Kingdom and Norway, which is supporting the mediation, likewise expressed ‘great disappointment that a genuine national dialogue has not begun in Sudan and that an environment conducive to participatory and credible elections does not exist.’

Mbeki was furious and ‘humiliated’ by Khartoum’s snub, according to Al-Mahdi. But Ibrahim Ghandour, Deputy Chairperson of the NCP and Presidential Advisor to Bashir told journalists this week that the government had meant no offence to Mbeki, but had not been consulted about either the date or the participants in the meeting. New participants, including from civil society, had been added to those previously agreed on. ‘We were not prepared to attend a meeting two weeks before the elections where other parties would like to discuss the cancellation of the elections,’ said Ghandour.

Both sides are further apart than they were before the elections

No doubt a cancellation or postponement would have been the demand from the opposition at the preparatory meeting. Yet Mbeki would have sought a compromise, it seems, which might well have been to persuade the opposition to accept the inevitability of the elections – provided the government committed to new elections, if and when these would be agreed in the national dialogue. That could have been well before its new mandate expired.

So where does this all leave the national dialogue now? The government insists that the national dialogue was its idea all along, and so it will certainly resume after the elections, as Vice President Hassabo Mohammed Abdul Rahman told foreign journalists this week. And if agreement were reached in the national dialogue on the need for early elections, then that would happen. There seemed to be just a hint of ambivalence built into that statement though, since the government would have to agree on the early elections in the national dialogue.

Abdul Rahman was also adamant that his government would accept no conditions for a national dialogue – and certainly not giving way to a transitional government which would conduct the dialogue, as the opposition had insisted on before.

Yet the ‘Sudan Call’ alliance, which groups the parliamentary opposition as well as the armed rebels of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, is even more inclined demand this condition than before, given what it perceives as government’s betrayal of its trust in holding the elections. Al-Mahdi made that clear this week. She said the opposition was in fact preparing to go ahead with a popular uprising against the government.

Did this mean the opposition was not available at all for a resumption of the national dialogue? ‘It can’t be business as usual,’ Al-Mahdi replied, insisting the government would have to take a very different approach to restore lost trust. That would include giving way to a transitional government and stopping its aerial bombardments in the war against the rebels in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, which are killing so many civilians.

‘If the international community and the region, especially the AU, commit themselves seriously to the national dialogue, it will take place much quicker,’ added Al-Mahdi. Otherwise the opposition would seek change on the streets, she said. So there is hope for the national dialogue, it seems. But only if everyone throws a lot more effort into it. Both sides are further apart than they were before the elections. The opposition is more mistrustful, while Bashir’s position is strengthened, also by his participation in the Sunni Arab military campaign in Yemen.

That might help to bring Sudan back in from the cold war with the United States, and it will bring badly needed financial assistance and political support from Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world, Al-Mahdi said. ‘Regionally, Bashir has come in out of the cold,’ said Alex de Waal, Sudan expert at Tufts University in the United States. ‘He's positioned himself well.’ This could make both sides more resistant to compromise.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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