Elections in Sudan: Learning from Experience
A new report by the Rift Valley Institute, warns that next year’s election in Sudan is in jeopardy unless measures are taken to curb malpractice, ensure press freedom, and reach voters living beyond the central area of the country.
A summary of Elections in Sudan: Learning from Experience, is below. The full report is available on this link: elections-in-sudan-learning-from-experience-1-may-2009
In Sudan, an election by secret ballot is currently planned for February 2010. As one of the key elements in a strategy to develop a more equitable, stable and inclusive political settlement in Sudan, the election is central to the timetable of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). It is intended to demonstrate the possibility of a democratic political system in a unified country.
Belief in the transformative power of elections by secret ballot has long been a driving force in the development policy of international agencies and donor governments, both European and North American. In recent years, however, this belief has been questioned. The ballot, it has been argued, has been fetishized, encouraging an empty performance of electoral behaviour that leaves the fundamentals of politics unchanged. It is possible, according to this argument, to have a ballot yet still deny the population the essentials of democracy: access to justice, governmental transparency, and freedom of expression and association.
In the light of such criticism, it may be asked: do elections actually matter? This report argues that they do. Sudan’s forthcoming election is not simply a post-conflict imposition by the international community. An election can be an authentic moment of national cohesion and participation. This idea has roots in Sudanese political experience, most notably in the 1953 “˜self-government’ election. The election of 1953 was held under difficult circumstances, with much suspicion and tension and limited time and resources, but it confounded sceptics by its peaceful, orderly nature and by the level of participation by voters. It laid the basis for Sudanese independence in 1956. Today it still offers an inspiring model of national participation; it gave voters a new sense of citizenship, and gave to the many public servants who were involved in running it an experience of working together in the interest of a new nation.
The 1953 election realized at least some of the ambitions that drove the adoption of election by secret ballot in Europe and the United States from the nineteenth century onwards. This innovation in the politics of these countries was inspired by the idea that secret ballot would create a new, direct relationship between citizen and state. It would free the individual from improper influence and intimidation, and allow him or her to make a rational choice; it would create responsible citizens. Election by secret ballot, properly conducted, is a complex process, including registration of voters – with appeals and objections – nominations of candidates, the organization of the ballot and the count itself. It offers an opportunity to involve both public servants and the public in a performance of the processes of democratic open government.
Elections in Sudan: Learning from experience examines Sudan’s considerable history of elections, and asks why it was that despite the apparent success of 1953, multi-party elections have not so far produced the kind of stable yet dynamic government in Sudan that the secret ballot is intended to encourage. The report argues that failures of government should not be construed as evidence of any fundamental unsuitability of elections to Sudanese circumstances. Sudan’s political instability has many causes. Shortcomings of leadership, a difficult colonial inheritance and complex regional politics have all played a part. That elections have not fulfilled their promise of remaking political culture has been partly a result of the sheer size of these challenges. But it has also been a consequence of problems in the electoral process, which have undermined the possibility that elections might create a new relationship between citizen and state.
These problems have been of two kinds. The first has been malpractice. This has been widespread and massive under authoritarian regimes, ranging from the stuffing of ballot boxes by election staff and the switching of boxes after voting has taken place, to less flagrant but equally problematic forms such as intimidation, the use of government resources in campaigning, interference in news media, and the deliberate exclusion of candidates deemed unsuitable by the ruling party. The scale and pervasiveness of these abuses has created widespread public scepticism about all electoral exercises. Malpractice has also been significant – though much less flagrant – in multi-party elections. Multiple registration and voting, registration and voting by unqualified persons, vote-buying and the improper use of influence and resources by public servants have all occurred in all elections. Comments from interviewees, and statistical anomalies, suggest that these malpractices may have become more common as a result of a decline in ethics and professionalism in the public service since the 1970s. On the whole, however, this report suggests that in multi-party elections malpractice was normally the work of candidates and their agents, not of officials.
Alongside these malpractices, Sudan’s elections have also been undermined by problems of resources. The analysis of these problems has a number of implications for the organization of elections today. The Sudanese state has never been strong, though it has often – in the colonial period and subsequently – been violent. Elections by secret ballot are a very complex logistical exercise. Challenges include the size of the country, wide variations in levels of education among the population, and widespread suspicion of government. Most officials involved in running multi-party elections tried to do their jobs properly, following complex – and sometimes impracticable – directives from their superiors. But all these elections were held with insufficient time and insufficient resources.
There have been two principal deficiencies in administration: a serious shortfall of trained staff, and an insufficiency of transport. Some potential voters lived far from registration or polling centres; others were reluctant to register, or even fearful of any dealings with officials. Where registration and polling officers were not able to reach people, or persuade them to be involved, the agents of candidates sometimes stepped in to register voters and to transport and process voters; but their presence too was very uneven across the country. So some people have found it much easier to register and vote than have others. Levels of participation in multi-party elections have, as a result, been low in the south, west and east of Sudan, that is, in parts of the country outside the central riverain area.
Since 1953, then, elections have fallen far short of the ideal of a national moment, bringing together citizen and state. The difference in experience can be simply expressed by looking at attitudes to the 1986 election. In the space of a single day, we heard one educated Sudanese, a Northerner, enthuse about the multi-party election of 1986, describing it as a genuine moment of democratic participation for all Sudanese; and an equally educated Sudanese, a Southerner, say, “˜Was there an election in 1986? Yes, yes, there was an election! But it was run by the army! It was not an election. It was run by the army.’
The report argues that Sudan’s history shows the potential role that elections may have in political life, as genuine moments of participation that evoke the idea of a democratic Sudan. But they have not realized this potential, and there is a strong possibility that the forthcoming election will suffer from a combination of all the weaknesses that have undermined previous elections. There is widespread public scepticism and suspicion of possible malpractice, based on people’s experience in previous authoritarian elections; and there are immense logistical challenges. An additional challenge is the additional complexity of the election planned for 2010: it is more elaborate than any previously attempted, with multiple ballots and a combination of systems.
The stakes are very high. If the election should lack credibility, it is hard to see how the Comprehensive Peace Agreement can survive. Recent experience in Kenya has shown how a combination of failure of process and suspicion of malpractice can lead to a rapid loss of public confidence in the whole electoral procedure, with immediate violent consequences. Transparency and inclusivity are thus key areas of support for the electoral process. The key recommendation of this report is that in order to ensure popular participation, and overcome popular scepticism, the coming elections must be organized in ways that are, first, seen to be transparent and, second, ensure the inclusion of all kinds of voters in all regions.
Routine election monitoring — monitoring of the poll for malpractice — is certainly desirable. But the report argues that this is not enough. Much more extensive support for the electoral process is necessary. Elections are not magic, and in so far as they have a special power to propel political change this relies on the shared experience of a predictable and transparent process. Commitment of resources at an early stage in the process is necessary to achieve this. Informed and consistent disposition of such resources, the report concludes, may allow the proper performance of the secret ballot and thus enable the election to be inclusive enough – and fair enough – to give a real impetus to a peaceful future for Sudan.