3 days of voting kicks off in Sudan’s elections despite opposition calls for delay

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Voting begins in Sudan’s historic elections

KHARTOUM, Sudan — Sudanese across Africa’s largest country voted Sunday in their first competitive elections in nearly a quarter century despite partial boycotts by the opposition and calls to delay the vote.

In Khartoum, turnout was lighter than expected in the first few hours of voting, aside from a few enthusiastic supporters of President Omar al-Bashir. Security was tight around polling stations and trucks loaded with uniformed security were deployed around the capital.

The elections, which will run through Tuesday, are an essential part of a 2005 peace deal that ended the north-south war that killed 2 million people over 21 years. They are designed to kick-start a democratic transformation in the war-plagued nation and provide a democratically elected government to prepare for a crucial southern referendum next year.

But two major political parties, including the southerners, decided to pull out fully or partially from the race, saying the process lacks credibility and was flawed from the start.

They called for a delay of the vote to address their concerns. The government refused.

Many of Sudan’s 16 million registered voters, especially in the south where the war raged, have never experience competitive elections before.

“I have never voted in my life,” South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir said after casting his vote in a polling station in Juba, the southern capital. Kiir arrived exactly at opening time, but the voting station was not yet open and he had to wait outside for nearly an hour before he could cast his vote.

Kiir said he wished these elections laid the ground work for democracy in the country where military coups have been recurrent.

Sudan’s President al-Bashir, who came to power in a military coup in 1989, also cast his vote in Khartoum. It is the first time he is running for re-election in a multiparty race.

More than 800 international observers descended on Africa’s largest country to observe the fairness of the contests, with the largest group from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s organization. He toured a polling stations in Khartoum at the start of the day.

“I think (opposition parties) want to see a peaceful transition and peace in this country, so I don’t think there is any party that is threatening at all any disturbance or violence or intimidation of voters,” he told reporters. “So we do expect and hopeful and believe there will be a peaceful election.”

The opposition has made a series of complaints — that the National Election Commission is biased to the government, the ruling party has used state resources in the campaign, the number of polling stations nationwide was cut in half from 20,000, making it harder for those in remote villages to cast ballots.

“This is the first time that the party that carried out a coup organizes elections,” said Sarah Nugdallah, the head of the political bureau of the Umma party, a major northern opposition group which is boycotting.

Some 16 million people will vote for over 14,000 candidates for everything from president to local councils. Experts said the elections are among the most complex in the world, where voters in the country’s north have to cast eight ballots; while southerners cast a dozen votes. A hot line for voters has been set so they can inquire about where to cast their vote.

Voting took place amid heavy security and police have issued stern warnings that no disturbances will be tolerated on election day. Though the day is not a holiday, many shops in Khartoum were closed Sunday.

In the ravaged western Darfur region, rebels have called for a boycott of the election since a state of emergency exists and fighting continues.

Since 2003, this vast arid region has been the scene of a bloody conflict between the Arab-led government in Khartoum and ethnic African rebels. At least 300,000 have been killed and millions driven from their homes.

Election posters lined the few paved roads of the regional capital of al-Fasher, showing pictures of al-Bashir, the “strong and honest leader,” and inciting voters to choose the “powerful party.”

Essam Mohamed, a 28-year old resident of al-Fasher, said he is still waiting to see how peaceful the process is before going to cast his vote. He said mainly women, who are not working, have turned up to vote.

“It is still the beginning. Not a huge showing yet,” he said. “I think these elections are important because we want to change local officials. But we are uncertain if that is possible. It is like a watermelon. We won’t know until we open it.”

In Khartoum, Amal Saleh, a housewife in her 30s, said she voted and expects al-Bashir’s party to garner most of the votes.

“I spent no more than three minutes inside the center,” she said. “I am not a ruling party member. But I think it will win…We know them better than others.”


Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.

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