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Sudan's recipe for electoral disaster

Text by Mehdi Chebil

Latest update : 2010-04-15

Sudan’s first competitive elections in 24 years have been marred by reports of irregularities. FRANCE 24 takes a look at the logistical hurdles involved in running several elections at once in Africa’s largest country.

Organising Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years was never going to be an easy task. The country has been rocked by years of civil war, leading to deeply-entrenched mistrust between leaders of the Muslim-dominated north and the predominantly Christian south.

But since the five-day vote began, political difficulties have been overshadowed by “technical irregularities”, which prompted the electoral commission to suspend voting in some constituencies on Tuesday. Here is a roundup of the daunting challenges facing Sudan’s electoral authorities.

Presidential, legislative, gubernatorial polls… how many is too many?

To organise a single nationwide election in Africa’s largest country is already a technical feat. But arranging several national and local votes at the same time is nothing short of a logistical nightmare for election officials.

All Sudanese will cast their ballot for the nation’s president, hundreds of members of the national legislature, as well as state governors. The people of South Sudan will also elect their own parliament and president, under the terms of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement which granted autonomy to the south.

All in all, a northerner is handed eight ballot papers to vote for each of the office, whereas a southerner has twelve separate ballots to fill in.

“It’s already confusing for experienced journalists, I don’t see how locals who never went to the polls could figure out these elections”, says Pamela Kesrouani, FRANCE 24’s special envoy in Sudan.

Who are the actual candidates?

A quick look at the ballot paper would normally answer that most basic of questions. But not here. Ballot papers have been printed weeks ahead of the vote and several opposition candidates, who have since decided to boycott the election, still appear on the sheets handed out to voters.

Even more confusing, South Sudan’s biggest party, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), has withdrawn from the presidential contest while maintaining its candidates for the south’s parliamentary elections, as well as for a few local constituencies in the north.

However, according to Sudan’s arcane electoral law, the SPLM’s former presidential candidate, Yasir Arman, could still end up as head of state.

"Since Yasir Arman’s name has already been printed on the ballot papers, some of his supporters will still vote for him and if he gets majority votes, the National Electoral Commission will have to officially declare him the president of the republic", an electoral official told the Sudan Tribune on April 5.

Ballot papers have been especially designed to be used by illiterate voters (Photo AFP)

Voters’ patience wearing thin with long delays

By all accounts, voting started off slowly – that is, in places where it started at all. Polling stations were set to open at 8am on April 11, but widespread delays forced prospective voters to wait for hours in the scorching heat.

“In the north, temperatures reach up to 45 degrees Celsius. In the south, they stop at between 30°C and 35°C, but because of the humidity it feels much hotter”, said FRANCE 24’s Pamela Kesrouani.

Our special envoy has met frustrated voters who told her about other polling stations that didn’t open at all. Other voters waited long hours before being told that they were registered in another, distant polling station.

A researcher in Juba, Maggie Fick, told Foreign Policy magazine that, out of five stations she visited on the first day of voting, only one was open – the one “stuffed with EU observers”.

Lack of experience in handling competitive elections

Candidates, ballot papers, and overall stakes may be hard to figure out, but Sudan’s elections have grabbed international headlines for being the country's first multi-party vote in 24 years.

In practice, officials at polling stations appeared initially confused by the competitive nature of these elections and voters reported a lack of facilities to cast a secret ballot.

“On the first day of the election, we were filming in a polling station in Khartoum and we noticed that we could see who the people were voting for. The station’s staffs were not used to secret ballot, but the situation improved later in the day”, said Kesrouani.

How do you vote when you can’t even read?

A South Sudanese woman shows her ink-stained finger after voting (Photo AFP)

A quick look at the CIA’s factbook on Sudan would give a headache to any election organiser.

More than 39% of Sudanese are illiterate (the figure rises to 85% in South Sudan), further complicating the voting process. Being unable to read makes it impossible to decrypt the names of the candidates on the ballot papers.

“Sudanese officials have tried to make it easier for illiterate voters by printing the candidates’ photos, as well as their political party’s symbol. But the problem is that they have apparently mixed up some of the parties’ symbols”, said Kesrouani.

Another statistic speaks volumes about the country’s logistical challenge. With only 43% of Sudanese living in urban areas, the government needs to transport ballot papers and other election materials in remote areas where the infrastructure is often wanting.



Date created : 2010-04-15


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