Eager To Vote, Braced For Trouble In Southern Sudan

A Sudanese policeman patrols a street next to a pole covered in election posters in Khartoum, Sudan. i

A Sudanese policeman in the capital Khartoum patrols past an electricity pole covered in campaign posters as preparations continue for Sudan's multiparty elections. Voting begins Sunday. Nasser Nasser/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Nasser Nasser/AP
A Sudanese policeman patrols a street next to a pole covered in election posters in Khartoum, Sudan.

A Sudanese policeman in the capital Khartoum patrols past an electricity pole covered in campaign posters as preparations continue for Sudan's multiparty elections. Voting begins Sunday.

Nasser Nasser/AP

Beginning Sunday, Sudan will have its first multiparty elections in 24 years.

Allegations of impropriety abound. A top presidential candidate has withdrawn from the race. And a number of political parties will likely boycott.

But even under the best of circumstances, elections are a headache. And in that context, Sudan's semi-autonomous South is facing its very first migraine: The overwhelming majority of people in southern Sudan have never voted.

Gemma Pita and Gladys Mananyu are 30-somethings, sitting in an office in the southern city of Juba. Pita says that most every southern Sudanese adult will have a chance to participate in the elections — including those in prison and in the hospital.

"For those who are not in coma, they can vote," she says.

Mananyu, who will be a first-time voter in this election, says she can't wait to get to the polling station.

Background: Sudan Elections

The Sudanese elections, set to begin Sunday, arise from the 2005 peace agreement that ended the civil war between the mostly Muslim North and the Christian and animist South.

In 22 years of fighting, more than 2 million people were killed and millions more displaced.

The peace deal, mediated by the United States and Sudan's neighbors, set out a six-year timetable for the two sides to work out their problems or split amicably. The upcoming multiparty elections have been seen as a chance to try to spread democracy and start to address the factors behind continued violence in the country.

In 2003, a separate conflict erupted in the western Darfur region, where ethnic African tribes revolted against political and economic marginalization by the government in Khartoum. Sudan's current president, Omar al-Bashir, has been charged by the International Criminal Court with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur. The United States labeled the violence there genocide.

Some have raised concerns that the elections — which have been fraught with accusations of wrongdoing by the ruling party — will be so flawed that they may actually spark more violence down the road.

Early next year, the South is supposed to vote on whether to officially split from the North and become an independent nation. But the North may be unwilling to let the oil-rich region go peacefully.

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"I've been observing it from many countries. When I was in exile, I've seen at least three times," she says. "One in Uganda; two in Kenya. So I was able to see and, out of what I've learned [and] also my observation, I think I'll be confident during the voting time."

Illiteracy At The Polls

Across the country, nearly every political office is in play in the elections, brought about by a 2005 peace deal ending a two-decade civil war. In the South, millions of voters will have a number of choices to make. They must vote for a president of the entire Republic of Sudan, a president for the semi-autonomous South; and a governor for whichever of the region's 10 states they live in, as well as national, regional and state lawmakers.

In all, there will be 12 ballots, which would be a challenge for any voting population. But in southern Sudan, 85 percent of the population is illiterate.

"For sure, that is a problem," Pita says. "Because in the town areas, OK, people know how to read and write. But ... in the villages, most of the people are illiterate. So they have to be led. Somebody has to assist them."

Each candidate will have a symbol on the ballot that voters will hopefully recognize. For instance, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir can also be identified by the symbol of a tree. Salva Kiir, who is running for re-election as president of southern Sudan, has the symbol of a triangle with a star.

International monitors are standing by. And those southerners who can read and write will help guide their countrymen through the process. But Pita says voters will have to make a leap of faith that the facilitators will guide their hands to make the right ticks on the ballots.

"My worry is that if the person who's assisting them is not really a man or a woman of God, that person can mislead the voters," Pita says. "But I hope those who will be put there are really the people of God, who have God in their hearts, and they do the wish of the voters."

Language Barriers

And there's another problem: In this region, people speak Arabic, English and many different tribal languages. Casting millions of ballots in all those tongues will take time. But the election period is only three days.

Mananyu has her doubts. "I still remain optimistic, but I think that is a big challenge for the southerners. Mistakes are human, so I see our people going to face a lot of difficulties."

It would help if Mananyu and Pita could get answers to their most pressing questions. Maybe they could seek out some trained elections monitors — except for one thing: They are trained elections monitors.

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