Two months ago, Sudan conducted its first multiparty elections in almost twenty-five years. The National Congress Party (the ruling party of northern Sudan) portrayed the elections as a milestone in Sudanese history, an opportunity for a peaceful transfer of power and a bloodless process that truly spoke to Sudan's political evolution.
The good news is that the National Congress Party was partially correct. The bad news is that Sudan is hardly better off after the elections.
On Friday afternoon, the Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion on Sudan's April elections and their implications for Sudanese democracy. Each panel member was quick to note some minor successes in the electoral process. There was little outright violence before or during the election period, and opposition parties in Khartoum were given a small but significant margin of political freedom. Marc Gustafson, author of "Rethinking Darfur," described how "voters learned how to vote" in the flourishing civic education programs prior to the elections.
Gustafson then listed the small victories for Sudanese democracy: three women in South Darfur won seats in parliament; two individuals from North Darfur ran and won as independents; and two gubernatorial elections in West and South Darfur were not only regarded as free and fair, but as competitive as well.
There is no denying, however, that the elections were hardly the leap forward many had hoped to see. Most were rigged, and immediately following the elections incumbent President Omar al-Bashir reinstituted government censorship over the media. Despite the government's claim that there was no political violence, many of the national security and intelligence organizations continued to oppress political dissent, albeit under the media radar.
Sean Brooks of the Save Darfur Coalition witnessed this oppression firsthand. On his first day in Sudan shortly before the elections, Brooks watched as two armored cars kidnapped one student activist from a road near his university. The armored cars returned the next day, dumping a dead body that showed signs of torture and beatings. As Brooks affirmed, "the gun still prevailed over any other form of influence."
In the above video, Brooks describes the Sudanese people's shock over the failure of the international community to help reform the broken system.
The recent election will likely have negative implications for the 2011 secession referendum. Each panelist agreed that April's elections have set a poor precedent for the referendum and for future elections. Voters will become disenchanted with the voting system, looking to the April 2010 elections as a sign of how intimidation still trumps democracy. The Darfur region became even more marginalized than before, since many leaders of the Janjaweed militia (who are infamous for their attacks on communities in Darfur) won seats in parliament. Distrust and animosity have only risen as opposition parties viewed the elections as rigged.
Jon Temin from the US Institute for Peace stressed the importance of the will of the people in the Sudanese referendum. If their voice is not fairly expressed, the referendum will likely lead to renewed violence and further human rights violations.
Unfortunately, since the elections there has been a global wave of pessimism toward the referendum. Despite his own ideas about finding a middle ground, Gustafson explained, "There seems to be a consensus now in the international community that there are only two options: there's secession, and there's unity, and both are likely to cause conflict."