Sudan: The North-South Elections Dichotomy
There are just four weeks to go before polling stations are set to open across Sudan, giving voters a choice of political parties for the first time in 24 years. For many people in the country this will be the first time they will ever vote. The coming moment is historic.
The incumbent regime in Khartoum has had a stranglehold over power for more than two decades. Over this time it has been involved in two internal wars and numerous additional internal conflicts. It has used suppressive security measures on its citizens, limited the freedoms of its peoples and actively and sometimes brutally countered all forms of opposition.
Since the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, oil revenues have turned Khartoum into a boomtown, where construction abounds and the city’s traffic has swelled to problematic levels. In upmarket restaurants young girls are in touch with the most up-to-date trends; hip hugging jeans and funky tops, accessorised with matching head scarves. These are the unconscious implications of the peace agreement –- money is generally accompanied by modernity.
Similarly over the last six years the ruling NCP has slowly and hesitantly opened up to the idea of democratisation, forced perhaps by a similar set of unconscious and uncontrollable reverberations. It has been compelled to take steps to include a wider set of stakeholders in governance, to negotiate with a Southern counterpart party, navigate international engagement and share power with an autonomous regional government in Juba.
Elections are a further step in this process of unfurling Sudan’s governance system. Some six months ago, whilst the South remained relatively asleep and unconcerned by elections, Northerners were preparing for their own “˜referendum’; for the opposition’s chance to dislodge the NCP from power. Elections were vitally important to the political parties and civil society of the North who mobilised heavily for the All Parties Political Conference in Juba in October last year. The consequent formation of the Juba Alliance was a good achievement, bringing together the opposition to begin the game-play of beating the NCP.
Yet as polling day draws closer, members of the Alliance seem to have forgotten their determination of earlier months. Threats to boycott the elections are the most common message coming from the Northern opposition, who seem to spend a large amount of energy decrying the unfair dynamics within which they must function and proposing dramatic solutions solutions. Security laws and apparatus, media ownership and airtime, the ineffectiveness and bias of the National Elections Commission and the use of state resources are the most common issues raised.
The expectations of the Juba Alliance are high, perhaps a little too high; they are so focussed on trying to level the playing field that they blind themselves to the fact that the game has already started and they are unprepared to play.
It is interesting to see that these leaders remain largely active in Khartoum. Rather than going out of the capital to speak to citizens, to impress upon them the importance of the elections (and thereby assist in the enormous task of voter education) discuss with them the challenges facing the country and how they as political leaders propose to overcome these challenges, they stay enmeshed in the politics of the capital. The centre-peripheries dynamics of Sudanese governance extends also to opposition politics, and we already know that this is no winning formula. The opposition parties of the North have miscalculated, for it seems that not only do they underrate the importance of the Sudanese voters in these elections, but they undermine their own power. As Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”.
In the South on the other hand, while elections have been slow to take centre stage in the region, they now consume a massive amount of attention and discussion. The majority of news coverage is on elections related issues. In the regional capital Juba, this has generated a tangible boost in political engagement. Whatever disillusionment people may harbour is accompanied by the difficult-to-resist discussions abounding. The recent emergence of independent candidates from within the SPLM further increased the “˜interest’ factor of these elections and there has been weeks where a frenzy of candidates seeking support from influential Sudanese who could sway communities.
Candidates are now out campaigning, with little time for anything else and rallies and processions are an everyday occurrence. Posters plaster over signboards and massive billboards with advertisements for the Presidency have been erected across the town. It is wonderful to watch public mini-buses drive by with their respective candidates looking out from the rear window. Political deals and negotiations, unruly soldiers and a bumpy playing field included, all in all, elections are happening in earnest in the South, because players are willing to play.
This is not to say that the notion of free and fair elections is not contested in the South. There have been numerous reports of harassment and arrests of candidates, of soldiers confiscating and pulling down posters of opposition parties and two radio stations were recently closed down in Juba for covering an interview of an independent candidate for Governorship. In the Political Parties Summit convened by the African Union High Level Implementation Panel in Juba recently, complaints against the SPLM were unleashed relentlessly by participants.
Yet despite the challenges and obstacles, however last minute the preparations and however unevenly the odds are stacked, Southern candidates are going for it. Perhaps it is a legacy of their struggle, this indomitable and determined spirit to at least attempt to rise to a challenge.
The contrast between the Northern and Southern opposition in these elections is clear. Elections, so critical to the Northern region, are losing momentum through the low willingness of candidates to offer their citizens a choice, whilst Southerners are grasping at whatever democratic opportunities they are being given with all their might. Let me suggest that there are two lessons that Northern opposition leadership can learn from their Southern compatriots. First, that self-belief is a prerequisite to winning in any situation; and second, that the story of the underdog has always been the most powerful and inspiring narrative.
If there’s anything that Sudanese people need from their leadership at this moment, it is some self-belief and inspiration.