Later this month, Sudanese voters will head to the polls to elect their next president. Like many of Sudan’s earlier elections, this one is not without controversy: Current President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) have been in power for decades and are under intense criticism for human rights abuses and for their failure to significantly improve living conditions for most of the Sudanese people. The NCP is the expected favorite, largely due to current regional violence and lack of government openness, among other problems.
Thus, opposition leaders have called on the country to postpone the elections until certain critical issues are resolved—including peace agreements with various groups that are fighting the central government and the adoption of major constitutional reforms. Similarly, Minni Minnawi, leader of the Sudan Liberation Army that has been fighting national government forces in Darfur, believes that the April election will not resolve the country’s governance and development quagmire. In fact, arguing that their participation would help legitimize the process, many of the opposition parties, led by the National Consensus Forces (NCF), a coalition of political parties opposed to the NCP, has indicated that it will not participate in the April exercise and has, in fact, launched a campaign for the boycott of the elections. Then again, some commentators argue that this decision is ill-advised and could further marginalize the opposition, destroying its ability to participate in governance in the future.
Who is contesting Sudan’s 2015 election?
President al-Bashir rose to power in a 1989 bloodless coup and declared himself president in 1993. Since that time and despite the efforts of pro-democracy movements to change the status quo, al-Bashir has managed to maintain his monopoly on power. In addition to the fact that he has been helped by a brutal civil war and the opposition’s decision to boycott elections, al-Bashir and his government have outlawed political parties and engaged in the brutalization of many regions of the country. In fact, in 2008, the International Criminal Court called for his arrest for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide in Darfur. In addition, in January of this year, the country’s parliament, which is dominated by al-Bashir’s NCP, enacted a series of constitutional amendments granting the president additional powers, effectively strengthening what has been an imperial presidency, reinforcing the country’s highly centralized and authoritarian governing process.
Despite the fact that as many as 15 individuals are running for president, both al-Bashir and the NCP are likely to emerge victorious. According to the National Election Commission, six presidential candidates are being sponsored by their political parties; the rest are running as independents. The largest opposition party, the National Umma Party (NUP), led by seasoned politician al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, has decided to boycott the 2015 elections. Al-Mahdi and the NUP want the elections postponed, and a transitional government of unity formed and granted the power to oversee the amendment of the constitution. As argued by the opposition, once a new, democracy-enhancing constitution has been drafted and ratified, the country can proceed with elections to pick a permanent government. Hassan al-Turabi’s Popular Congress Party (PCP) and some factions within the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are also boycotting the 2015 elections.
Will the election be considered fair and credible by the Sudanese people?
The fact that the government in Khartoum has persistently refused to consider the opposition’s arguments that the elections should be postponed until the national dialogue has been completed, a transitional government of unity formed, and a more acceptable constitution drafted and adopted means that there is likely to be much controversy. In addition, given the fact that most of the opposition has already indicated that it would boycott the election, making sure that the election is fair, free, and credible is challenging. Recently, the opposition has accused security forces of making it difficult for them to express themselves and educate Sudanese citizens about the government’s continued suppression of individual freedoms, including the right to express opinions not favored by or favorable to the incumbent regime in Khartoum. Given the fact that a large part of the Sudanese electorate believes that the present political environment within the country is not conducive to the carrying out of a fair and free election, those individuals and groups are not likely to accept the results or consider the process as fair and free—and that will definitely put the legitimacy of the government to question. If the international community also concludes that the elections were neither credible nor free and fair, which is also quite likely, that could further isolate the regime in Khartoum and hamper any efforts to resolve conflicts in various regions of the country and generally improve the environment for investment and economic growth.
Since independence in 1956, Sudan has not been able to provide itself with institutional arrangements and a governing process that guarantees the rule of law. The failure of the country’s laws and institutions to adequately constrain the state has allowed state custodians (i.e., civil servants and political elites) to behave with impunity and engage in activities (e.g., corruption) that have constrained economic growth and development, endangered the peaceful coexistence of the country’s diverse population groups, alienated the international community, significantly reduced foreign investment, and endangered the country’s international standing. In addition, many government policies during most of the post-independence period have been viewed by several groups as marginalizing them and pushing them to the economic and political periphery. Some of these groups have been engaged in armed conflict against the national government for many years.
If, on the highly unlikely chance that al-Bashir capitulates to the opposition and forms its proposed transitional government, many questions need to be answered. How would it be chosen? Would al-Bashir and the NCP be part of it? Given the fact that the NCP has not been willing to participate in any efforts to reform the country’s political system and provide for more transparency in government communications, as well as improved accountability of the government to the people, how likely is it that a transitional government involving the NCP would be able to successfully undertake the reforms suggested by the opposition?
On the other hand, assuming that the 2015 elections are carried out as scheduled and al-Bashir and the NCP win, will the new government undertake the reforms necessary to enhance Sudan’s ability to take its place among the other democratic countries of the world—specifically, those that respect human rights, provide legal mechanisms for their citizens to organize their private lives and live together peacefully, and enhance the creation of the wealth needed to deal fully and effectively with poverty and high rates of material deprivation?
But, is this optimism justified?
President al-Bashir and the National Congress Party have ruled Sudan with significant levels of discretion for many decades. During this period, little effort has been made to engage the Sudanese people in the type of institutional reforms that would have provided the country with more democracy-enhancing institutional arrangements, that is, those that guarantee the rule of law. In his campaign speeches, President al-Bashir has alluded to his government’s supposed interest in peace and development. However, during nearly two decades in power,
he and the NCP have either been unwilling or incapable of spearheading the reforms needed to bring about peaceful coexistence and genuine development in Sudan. In fact, the constitutional amendments implemented by the NCP-dominated legislature in January this year significantly increased the powers of the presidency and effectively negated efforts by the opposition to transition the country to democratic governance. Thus, while it is possible that al-Bashir and the NCP might surprise us after the elections, decide to shed their authoritarian image, form a unity government that will undertake necessary institutional reforms (some of which are mentioned above), and transition this important country to democracy, with laws and institutions that guarantee the rule of law, and hence, enhance peaceful coexistence and the creation of the wealth that the country needs to fight poverty and improve national living standards, it is hard to be optimistic, especially given al-Bashir’s and his government’s long history of political opportunism.
What is in store for the post-election government?
Regardless of the winner (though it is most likely to be al-Bashir and the NCP), the post-election government will have to deal with several urgent and critical issues facing the country:
- First, the new government must engage all relevant stakeholder groups in Sudan in constitutional talks to develop and adopt a development-oriented constitution and one that is acceptable to all of the country’s different groups. The new government must steer the country away from authoritarianism and toward democracy and the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This can be accomplished, first, by forming a transitional government of national unity, one that provides representation for all of the country’s relevant stakeholders, and then empowering that government to engage the people in robust constitution making to develop and adopt a constitution that adequately constrains the state, enhances peaceful coexistence, and guarantees the rule of law. Such a governing process, for example, can be characterized by a separation of powers with effective checks and balances. Perhaps, some sort of national sovereign conference, to be attended by representatives of all of the country’s relevant stakeholder groups, including especially historically marginalized regions such as Darfur, South Kordofan, and the Blue Nile states, can be granted the power to draw up the political principles that would guide and form the foundation for the construction of the country’s permanent constitution. As I note above, this new transitional government will face complex challenges, especially regarding the NCP’s role in it. The question on everyone’s minds is: How likely is it that such a transitional government would be formed if al-Bashir and the NCP are victorious in the April 2015 election?
- Second, the new government must make an effort to resolve the conflicts in Darfur, South Kordofan, the Blue Nile states, and other parts of the country, enhance the peace, and provide an enabling environment for the peaceful coexistence of groups, as well as for economic growth and development. In a recent campaign speech, al-Bashir intimated that Sudan is a rich country with significant endowments of resources that could be used to meet the needs of all its citizens. He then called on groups who have taken arms against the government to seek peace so that the country could proceed with its development agenda. So far, the country’s civil wars and regional conflicts have squandered resources (including scarce human capital) that could have been used to develop the country. Nevertheless, Khartoum and the new government must reach out to historically alienated groups and give them a reason to lay down their arms and negotiate in good faith so that the country can achieve the peace necessary to begin the process of genuine political and economic development in the country.
- Relatedly, national identity needs to be strengthened. Many groups in Sudan, especially those living in peripheral areas, unsurprisingly consider themselves alienated from the government in Khartoum. National integration and nation-building must be at the top of any post-election government’s policy priorities.
- Fourth, the new government must deal with a relatively high unemployment rate, especially among young people, by significantly increasing investment in education and job training, especially for people living in areas of the country that have, historically, been pervaded by conflict. It is important that these economically and politically marginalized regions be fully integrated into the country’s economy and be made full participants in wealth creation and economic growth. Additionally, the new government must make certain that genuine efforts are made to improve access to education for other historically marginalized groups, notably girls and women. In a recent campaign speech, al-Bashir announced that his government intends to invest heavily in higher education and provide opportunities for all Sudanese to acquire human capital. While higher education is critical to Sudan’s industrial transformation, it is important for the government to recognize the fact that a robust, well-funded, and easily accessible system of primary and secondary schools is the foundation for any sustainable industrialization scheme.
- Fifth, the new government needs to improve its relations with the international community and with its neighbors—better relations should improve the country’s ability to participate gainfully in the global economy, as well as create opportunities for foreign investment flows, cultural and educational exchanges, and improved protection of human rights, especially those of ethnic and religious minorities. Of critical importance is the need for Sudan’s post-election government to settle its disputes with its neighbor South Sudan, especially on Abyei, the border, the use of Sudan’s pipelines to transport South Sudan’s oil to export markets, South Kordofan, and the status of refugees.
- Finally, al-Bashir and the National Congress Party, the likely winners of the 2015 elections, must ask themselves how they want posterity to judge and remember them. African political elites rarely think about the type of legacy that they are likely to leave to future generations. For al-Bashir and the NCP, the April 2015 election offers a rare opportunity for them to rehabilitate themselves and emerge as public servants with truly transformative development agendas, and not as opportunistic exploiters whose only interest was self-enrichment.
Note: This article was amended on April 1, 2015 to reflect the delay of the elections to April 13.