On April 11, amidst allegations of fraud, Sudan held its first multiparty elections for presidential, parliamentary and state assembly posts in more than two decades. After 11 days of counting, President Omar Al-Bashir, leader of the northern National Congress Party (NCP) who took power in a bloodless coup in 1989, was declared the winner with 68 percent of the vote, the Associated Press reports. The elections are a precursor to a vote early next year on south Sudan’s independence. The last election in Sudan was held in 1986.

Mr. Bashir’s main challengers, including the Umma party of the north and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in the south, decided to boycott the elections, citing concerns over fraud. The New York Times reports that the opposition parties, along with some election observers, claim that Bashir manipulated state media, election rules, and the printing of ballots.

Additionally, CNN reports that the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway issued a joint statement saying that although the election took place peacefully and with high levels of participation, they have “serious concerns about weak logistical and technical preparations and reported irregularities in many parts of Sudan.” The Carter Center, which helped monitor the election, also raised concerns, stating that there were “critical shortcomings” in voter registration that resulted in regional discrepancies in voter participation, according to CNN. The Carter Center further notes that, “voters faced a range of operational and logistical problems: late delivery of and/or inadequate materials, incomplete or inaccurate voters’ lists, incorrect or insufficient ballots, ballots with inappropriate languages and a lack of consistency in procedures.” As a result of citizen complaints that the polling stations were unprepared, with some polling stations having yet to receive their ballots, voting was extended from three to five days. Most recently, a video surfaced on the Internet purporting to show ballot stuffing, although it was not independently verified, according to the BBC. However, the Sudanese government has since blocked access to YouTube, the Paris-based Sudan Tribune reports

These elections will leave several questions for the future of Sudan in their wake. Will these elections help put an end to decades of violence and unrest in Sudan? Will the elections be viewed as legitimate in Sudan and the international community? And will the south vote for independence next year?

A history of violence

For decades, Sudan has been wracked by violence, enduring two civil wars and a genocide in Darfur. The elections are designed in part to prepare the country for a referendum on southern autonomy that will take place in January 2011. In 2005, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Bashir’s government and Sudan People’s Liberation Army, which was formed in 1983 as a primarily non-Arab rebel army in the south, ended the second Sudanese civil war between the Arab north and non-Arab south. As part of the agreement, the south was granted limited autonomy for a six-year period, after which there would be a referendum.

The war began in 1983, with the SPLM battling for southern independence. After the central government established Arabic as the language of administration in the south and northern officials took over political posts in the region, antagonism emerged between northern and southern Sudan. In 1989, Prime Minister Saddiq Al Mahdi reached an agreement with the SPLM that called for a ceasefire and a freezing of Shari’a law. Following this event, Mr. Bashir led a military coup along with fifteen other officers and took power in an attempt to reinstate Shari’a law.

The elections might help pave the way towards a less violent, more democratic future. In spite of the turmoil surrounding the election, Bashir’s party has made some overtures to opposition parties. According to Reuters, Senior NCP official Ghazi Salaheddin stated, “If we are declared winners in the elections … we would extend the invitation to all parties, even those who have not participated in the elections, to join the government because we believe this is a critical moment in our history.”

The offer received mixed and cautious reception. “Let us talk about dialogue first, how to solve Sudan’s problems,” said Umma vice-president Fadlalla Burma Nasir. Yasir Arman, the former presidential candidate for the SPLM was also skeptical: “This is proof that they know the results in advance…we don’t need an invitation from Ghazi.”

In spite of imperfections, holding non-violent, competitive elections is a small step towards consolidating a democratic regime in Sudan. “I have never voted in my life. This is my first time to vote and it is a good feeling that Sudan is going back to democracy,” South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir told the Associated Press after casting his vote. “I hope that it would be the foundation for future democracy in our country so that power is transferred from person to person by peaceful means.”

Economic growth plays key role in election

Mr. Bashir has been accused by the International Criminal Court and the United States of complicity in the genocide in Darfur, where non-Arab rebel armies have been fighting against the Janjaweed, the official Sudanese military, since 2003. In July 2008, the International Criminal Court (ICC) accused him of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, and in March 2009, the court issued a warrant for his arrest. It was later determined that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him for genocide.

In a speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2004, Secretary of State Colin Powell said “We conclude — I concluded that genocide has been committed in Darfur and that the government of Sudan and the Janjaweed bear responsibility.” According to 2004 report by Human Rights Watch, “Despite international calls for investigations into allegations of gross human rights abuses, the government has responded by denying any abuses while attempting to manipulate and stem information leaks. It has limited reports from Darfur in the national press, restricted international media access, and has tried to obstruct the flow of refugees into Chad.”

Despite international condemnation, Mr. Bashir remains popular in Sudan. He derives his popularity in part from the nation’s economic growth over the past decade. A recent New York Times article reports that Sudan’s gross domestic product has nearly tripled since Mr. Bashir took power, according to the International Monetary Fund. A report by the World Bank attributes much of the increase to Sudan’s oil exports over the past decade. However, the Times article states that many Sudanese citizens credit Mr. Bashir alone. Kamal Yusuf, an elder in the farming village of Tagba, said in an interview with the Times. “Our lives are so much better than they used to be. Why would we vote for change?” However, there remains a significant socioeconomic gap, and much of the country lives in poverty. Despite his popularity, Mr. Bashir remains a controversial figure in several regions of Sudan, particularly Darfur and the south, the Times reports.

While Mr. Bashir may be popular among those to have experienced the fruits of economic growth under his leadership, some citizens argue that the elections were no longer legitimate because the main opposition dropped out. One citizen said to The New York Times “Election? We don’t consider this an election. Around here, people are still treated like slaves.”

Although the opposition dropped out because it believed that the elections were not going to be free and fair, some citizens are unhappy with the boycott. Ms. Nesrine Malik, a Sudanese citizen and reporter for The Guardian (UK) wrote in a recent article, “here lies the first problem: the lack of viable alternatives exacerbated by the shameful spate of shameful spate of withdrawals from the race. Yasir Arman, running on behalf of the SPLM, seemed to think this was not an election worth fighting as the presidency of a united Sudan would soon become redundant (assuming the referendum on the secession of the south goes ahead next year).”

Secession?

The 2011 referendum on southern independence is the next major step for Sudan. Negotiating the terms of the referendum was a long process, requiring both logistical and political negotiation. A census had to be taken in part to prepare for this year’s elections, in addition to the logistical difficulty of running a complex election in an impoverished nation like Sudan. Disagreement emerged over whether the referendum would require a simple majority or two-thirds majority in order to pass, with the central government pushing for a two-thirds requirement. The SPLM and the central government eventually agreed that in order for the referendum to pass, it would require a simple majority and 60 percent participation.

It is unlikely that the elections will do anything to change the results of next year’s referendum. J Peter Pham, Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on Amerian Foreign Policy in New York City writes in National Defense Review, “There is little doubt that a free and fair referendum on self-determination in South Sudan would result in an overwhelming vote for secession.” He argues that the “electoral mess itself has become yet another bone of contention between the two sides.”

However, Nicholas Kristof points out in his April 21 column in The New York Times that questions remain over whether or not Mr. Bashir will accept the results of the referendum. Most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south, and he is unlikely to give up those reserves to the south. In an interview, Mudawi Ibrahim Adam, a prominent human rights advocate in Sudan, warns Kristof that if election rigging is tolerated, Mr. Bashir is more likely to believe that he can get away with ignoring the vote and using violence.

An April 15 report by the Small Arms Survey, based at the Graduate Institute of International of Development Studies in Geneva, states that competition over oil resources may trigger armed conflict, Businessweek reports. According to the report “The entire border area has become heavily militarized and unstable, as both sides compete for strategic resources. Oil is the most significant of these border resources and the stakes are extremely high.”

For the best chance of having the referendum go smoothly, plans must be made for life after the referendum. In his article, Mr. Pham outlines several key steps. A border between north Sudan and what will be the new South Sudan must be established; a plan for oil revenue sharing must be developed; and the status of border territories, such as the oil rich county of Abyei must also be agreed upon. However, as Mr. Pham notes, secession is not the only option for southern Sudan. It could unilaterally declare independence, which Pham argues would be an equally legitimate expression of popular will.