Voting Begins In Sudan's Historic Elections

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Sudan is holding its first multi-party elections in 24 years. The presidency is at stake, as are thousands of other positions. A number of political parties are boycotting the vote, saying the process will be neither free nor fair. But international monitors hope the vote will be good enough to qualify as genuine.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It has been so long since Sudan has held multi-party elections nearly a quarter of a century - that many voters have never had a choice before. Some political parties, there, say voters still don't, and are boycotting an election they say is neither free nor fair. International monitors hope the vote going on now will be free and fair enough.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports from Khartoum.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Magda Asman Mole(ph) doesn't like what she's looking at. Voting should have begun an hour ago at this school-turned-polling center in Khartoum, but people are sitting on long benches with their elbows on their thighs and their hands between their knees. The ballots are filled with the names of candidates who are boycotting the elections, and the Girl Scout green ink that's supposed to indelibly mark each person as having voted is not so indelible.

Mole is a Sudanese elections monitor representing a civil society group called Tamom(ph). In Arabic, tamom means good. But when the voting starts, Mole says it's not tamom; not tamom at all.

Ms. MAGDA ASMAN MOLE (Elections Monitor, Tamom): At this station, starting voting before sealing the boxes.

THOMPKINS: Sealing the boxes.

Ms. MOLE: Sealing the boxes, yes. Well, actually, the man which take this mistake is the head of this center.

THOMPKINS: The head of the polling station.

Ms. MOLE: The head of center. I think that is not good.

THOMPKINS: And yet, maybe the overall situation is tamom enough.

Okay. Only about a third of the inmates at a local prison have bothered to vote. And really, do they have other things to do? But Sudan's election period is three days.

Former Ghanaian President John Kufuor heads the African Union monitoring mission. He's optimistic.

Former President JOHN KUFUOR (Ghana): Looks like people have patience, are clearing up and there is some peace and orderliness so far.

THOMPKINS: Opposition candidates say that Sudan's ruling party has rigged the vote. But Western and African powers are eager to see the process move forward. National elections are a requirement of a landmark peace agreement ending a long civil war between North and South Sudan.

Former President Jimmy Carter is heading a team of monitors for The Carter Center. And in more than 100-degree heat he's keeping cool.

President JIMMY CARTER: The element of distrust in a long-overdue election is bound to arise from the ones who have been outside for the last 23 years. And I can't say that part of that distrust is unwarranted. And so that's why international observers are here.

THOMPKINS: No matter what, the former president says, it's best to stay in the race.

Pres. CARTER: In every election in which I've ever been involved, the people that withdraw from the election, in my opinion, make a mistake. They should stay in the election, do the best they can. And if they only win 10 or 15 percent of the seats in the national assembly, they'll have a voice there.

THOMPKINS: This week's elections make way for the decision that everyone is thinking about: next year, southern Sudan will vote on whether to remain in unity with the north or become their own independent nation. That vote could change African.

But for schoolteacher Amani Sharif Aden Mohammad(ph), this election is also pretty historic. She's never voted before. And jamming her ballots into those big plastic boxes, she said, was fairly wonderful. Maybe her word was tamom.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Gwen Thompkins.

This is NPR News.

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