- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 14, 2010

KHARTOUM, Sudan | Sudan’s first multiparty elections in 24 years offered a wide variety of experiences Tuesday as the third day of voting produced a smooth process in some areas, boycotts by opposition parties in others and technical difficulties that prompted officials to suspend balloting in a few precincts in this oil-ich nation.

With the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) accused of rigging the process, voting has proceeded under the scrutiny of regional and international watchdog groups with at least one outcome all but certain: the re-election of President Omar al-Bashir, who enjoys widespread popularity despite his indictment for international crimes stemming from the war in Darfur.

His two chief rivals — Yasir Arman of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which governs the semiautonomous southern portion of the country, and former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi — withdrew from the race, citing election fraud.

Yet Mr. Bashir’s popularity cannot be underestimated. Perceived by many Sudanese as a simple man from “the provinces” who speaks his mind, he is often seen on weekends attending weddings and funerals here. He dresses in the traditional clothing of the areas he visits in Sudan and likes to engage in traditional “ardah,” dancing with supporters at political rallies.

“He likes to be among the people,” said Al-Haj, a 52-year-old taxi-driver.

What’s more, Sudan’s recent economic boom resulting from oil sales and foreign investment has been cited as an influence among some voters.

Khalid, 28, a baker from Khartoum, said he will vote for the first time in his life in this election — and he is voting for Mr. Bashir. “We used to hear that there were long bread lines in the eighties … but now, I’ve never seen a line at this bakery,” he said.

Support for Mr. Bashir comes from unexpected places, too.

Such as from Ahmad, 33, a driver from the working-class neighborhood of Umm Badda outside the capital, Khartoum. His father is from South Kordofan, and his mother is from Darfur 8212; two states that have witnessed war under Mr. Bashir. “There is development in Sudan now, and we don’t want to start from zero again,” Ahmad said.

The state and federal elections, mandated by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, are a step toward a referendum on southern independence scheduled for January.

Members of a fragmented alliance of opposition parties have decided to boycott the elections or participate in them to some extent.

The National Umma Party, a main opposition party headed by Mr. al-Mahdi, decided to boycott the elections except for parliamentary elections in two northern states — Blue Nile and South Kordofan.

But the Popular Congress Party (PCP), led by Islamist Hasan al-Turabi, decided to remain in the elections.

“Elections are better than no elections, even if it has shortcomings,” said PCP activist Suleiman Hamid. “The NCP cannot win everything, and the mobilization that has happened is in of itself a gain.”

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP-Original), a large and historically significant party headed by religious leader Muhammad Osman al-Mirghani, “had announced a boycott … but pressure from our grass roots made us return,” said Ahmad Saad, a candidate for the party.

Political analysts here expressed skepticism about the opposition parties’ reasons for boycotting the vote.

“The opposition’s methods were wrong; boycott is not the best choice,” said columnist and analyst Faysal Muhammad Salih. “Confronting the NCP is a long battle. If it was a collective effort, it would be effective.”

Mr. Salih said the opposition has thrown away a chance to train grass-roots activists and get “quality youth activists in parliament … [The] NCP could have lost two or three states, maybe more, to new governors.”

Safwat Fanus, a political science professor at the University of Khartoum, noted weaknesses in opposition candidates who “did not campaign well.”

Boycotting the elections enables the opposition “to justify their weakness,” Mr. Fanus said. “The [National] Umma Party will not get the results it got in the 1986 elections, and it needs an excuse.”

The opposition’s weakness also denotes a struggle between pro-independence southern politicians and those who advocate for former SPLM leader John Garang’s pro-unity concept of a “New Sudan,” Mr. Salih said.

Meanwhile, the ruling NCP has organized a campaign with an eye for the future, the analysts said.

“NCP is serious about the election,” Mr. Salih said. “It is ready, knows it can win and wants a new legitimacy.”

Voting is scheduled to end Thursday, and results are to be announced Sunday.

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