Sudan Holds Elections For First Time In Nearly 25 Years

The five days of voting, which ended Thursday, were the first multiparty presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 24 years in Sudan. They were a key requirement of a 2005 peace deal that ended a 21-year civil war between the country's predominantly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south. The conflict left some 2 million people dead. Host Michel Marin talks with journalists Maggie Fick and Maraz Mazen who are covering these elections in Sudan about what they mean and why it matters to Americans.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we'll talk about a traveler's guide to Florida that was produced by one of the finest writers of the Harlem Renaissance. We'll hear how that guide came to be and what has changed and what has not. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, officials are still counting ballots in Sudan's first election in 24 years. Sudan is the largest country in Africa and home to more than 42 million people. But Sudan has been much in the news in recent years because civil wars between the mostly Muslim north and the mostly Christian south have killed 1.5 million Sudanese. And the continuing conflict in the region of Darfur has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands, while millions more have been displaced.

The hope was that the election might bring stability. But with president and indicted war criminal Omar Hassan Al-Bashir thought to be ahead, amid boycotts and delays and allegations of fraud, we wanted to ask if there is much of a chance for real change in Sudan.

So we've called Maggie Fick. She's a researcher for the Enough Project. That's the anti-genocide effort by the Center for American Progress. She wrote about the elections in a piece titled "How Sudan's Election Got Messy," in last week's edition of Foreign Policy magazine. Also joining us is Maram Mazen. She's a correspondent for Bloomberg and Global Radio News. And I want to mention Maggie in Juba and Maram is in Khartoum. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Ms. MAGGIE FICK (Researcher, Enough Project): Thanks, Michel.

Ms. MARAM MAZEN (Correspondent, Bloomberg, Global Radio News): Thank you. I'm glad to be here today.

MARTIN: Maram, could you just give us an update about where things stand now in the vote?

Ms. MAZEN: The officials from the elections commission are still counting the vote. Final results will probably not be announced until later this week, the officials said.

MARTIN: Okay. And, Maggie, observers from both the Carter Center and the European Union are saying that the vote did not meet international standards for fairness and transparency. I'm just going to play a short clip of former American president, Jimmy Carter, speaking from Sudan on Saturday. Here he is.

President JIMMY CARTER: Although, as I said, it's too early to make a final judgment, it's obvious that these elections will fall short of international standards that are expected of advanced democracists in the holding of elections. And Sudan's obligations for general elections in many respects, the people's expectations have not been met.

MARTIN: Maggie, what do we know of what led to his concerns? What sort of problems have been observed?

Ms. FICK: Well, I think, Michel, really, the irregularities and the technical difficulties that characterize the polling period in Sudan really trace back all the way two years ago to the holding of the census, this long process that is part of the comprehensive peace agreement that, like you said, ended decades of war between Sudan's north and south.

So, I think when President Carter says that people's expectations were not met, he's not just speaking about the day when they went to the ballot box, but he's speaking about the overall concerns that are present in a place like Sudan that haven't had multiparty elections, like you said, in 24 years that is emerging from civil war.

But when we talk about these irregularities, I think it's important not to just characterize them as technical difficulties, but to also think about the ways in which the two ruling parties, the National Congress Party in Khartoum and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement in Juba played a role in sort of making these irregularities look neater than they really are.

MARTIN: And why are they doing that?

Ms. FICK: Well, I think it's fair to say that the National Congress Party in Khartoum led by indicted war criminal President Omar Al-Bashir, has a real interest in being legitimized by these elections. So he was hoping to sort of use these elections to relegitimize his role. He took power in a coup nearly 21 years ago. So this was a chance for him to sort of consolidate power.

He's in a difficult position, as you know, indicted by the International Criminal Court, unable really to travel very much outside of the country. So I think he was seeking to use these elections as a way to position themselves strategically in advance of this important referendum on South Sudan's independence next January. I think it's also fair to say that President Bashir was not too happy with the statements of the Carter Center and the European Union this past Saturday.

MARTIN: Maggie, I did want to ask you, in your piece for Foreign Policy magazine, you said that surrendering was the word used by several voters with whom you spoke, that they were just surrendering to the process and they just wanted to get it over with. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that?

Ms. FICK: Well, those particular comments were sort of referring to technical difficulties. People were saying, you know, I can't find my name on the voter registry list. I was told to come back here. I walked to the station around the corner, but my name's not here, so I'm surrendering. I guess I'm not going to cast my vote today.

But as I mentioned in the piece, for Southern Sudan, the real end game is this referendum next year. The vast majority of southerners want independence from the north. And so I think a fear that I already see emerging on the horizon is, what happens next January if the people of Southern Sudan aren't able to cast their vote? So, I see this as a real flashpoint for conflict next year. I think for these elections, not being as important for southerners, you know, people are willing to surrender, but not next year.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the historic presidential election in Sudan, first election in 24 years. We're speaking with Maggie Fick, a researcher for the Enough Project. That's an anti-genocide project. She's the author of a recent piece about the elections in Foreign Policy magazine.

We're also speaking with Maram Mazen, a correspondent for Bloomberg and Global Radio News. Maram, what about you? What have you observed with voters? Give us your impression.

Ms. MAZEN: There was a lot of confusion within the voters, especially after opposition parties in the north changed their position several times on whether they will participate in the elections or whether they will boycott, when some parties decided to boycott the elections in some parts of the country, while Umma Party, which has won the last democratic elections in the country in 1986, decided they will officially boycott the elections, while some of their candidates decided to participate.

MARTIN: And, Maram, as you I'm sure know that the Darfur conflict is of particular interest to many Americans, many people in the European Union, advocacy groups. Do we have any sense of how these elections may affect the ongoing conflict there?

Ms. MAZEN: Well, the two major rebel groups, the Justice and Equality Movement and the Sudan Liberation Movement (unintelligible) both said they reject the elections and they will reject the results. And that will definitely increase tensions in Darfur. And the International Crisis Group said that the government in Khartoum brought in foreigners from the Niger and from Chad and registered them as Sudanese citizens to be able to vote in the elections.

And they were hoping that if more people (unintelligible) choose (unintelligible) President Bashir, that would increase the legitimacy and help them face International Criminal Court's accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the region.

MARTIN: And, Maggie, could you pick it up there? What is likely to happen now in the wake of the elections? What does this mean going forward, especially for the International Criminal Court, for the United Nations? What happens now?

Ms. FICK: Right, Michel. Well, I think that's an important question. I think given the fact that the elections are occurring within this timeline of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, these polls have been postponed twice. So, now they've actually taken place just nine months before this referendum for Southern Sudan that we've been speaking about.

So, now we have this issue of the post-elections period. And I shouldn't even call it that because, as we've discussed, the votes are still being counted. So, as we've seen in other countries like Kenya in recent years, this is actually more of a tense time for people in Sudan than the actual polling period. Because what we have now are results being posted on polling stations, but no official announcement yet by the National Electoral Commission of the results.

So, there's a lot of uncertainty, a lot of rumors going around about who's won, but just sort of flashing forward to what's going to happen in the coming months when you have the two parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement having to get back to the table to negotiate on just a whole series of complicated arrangements regarding the future of Sudan, regardless of whether it separates or not. There is the whole issue of just holding this referendum in January.

And if we learned anything from the elections process, it will not be an easy endeavor, despite the fact that the referendum is basically a simple yes or no vote, whereas the elections were a great deal more complicated. There's just a whole lot of new wildcards on the table.

MARTIN: Okay, and I'm going to one more question for each of you. And, Maram, I'm going to ask you this first. Did these elections, however flawed they were, is there anything hopeful about just the fact that the process took place at all?

Ms. MAZEN: Well, if you're comparing having elections or not having elections for 24 years, it is definitely a good step. But northern opposition parties are concerned that there will never be such international attention given to Sudan after the southern referendum, which will probably lead to the independence of Southern Sudan.

They are concerned that if that happens, the northern opposition parties will be stranded in the North and without any hope of progress in this democratic transformation process. Opposition parties and local independent, domestic observation groups both said that they have witnessed - that they have evidence that the elections were rigged. They displayed pictures of children casting their votes in some areas.

They said they were able to see the elections commission officers late at night within the polling stations with open boxes. They have no direct evidence of boxes being changed with ballot papers inside them, which raises questions on whether it was rigged, they say.

MARTIN: And, Maggie, final thought from you? I do note that the way you ended your piece for foreign policy by saying five years after a decades-long civil war ended, it's certainly no small miracle to see southerners from elderly women to young men and everyone in between lining up to participate in a process that holds a glimmer of hope for the future of this region. Does it hold a glimmer of hope?

Ms. FICK: I think that was sort of my personal, emotional reaction to the process. Like Maram said, the choice between not having elections after 24 years and having elections, it's arguably a first step. But then when you read some of these statements from independent, domestic Sudanese groups telling President Carter to leave the country to salvage the reputation of his organization.

When you see the ways in which people were disenfranchised by this vote, it's really an open question. I've heard a well-known southern politician say that these elections represent a moral dilemma for the international community, again, for the way in which they fall within this important peace agreement's timeline. I hesitate to say that it's a step in the right direction, but then again I don't want to take away from people this feeling of optimism that at least we had the chance to do it. Then again, some didn't, of course, because they weren't able to find their name to vote.

MARTIN: Maggie Fick is a researcher for the Enough Project. That's an anti-genocide effort of the Center for American Progress. Her piece, "How Sudan's Election Got Messy" was published in last week's edition of Foreign Policy magazine. She joined us by Skype from Juba, Sudan. Also with us is Maram Mazen, a correspondent for Bloomberg and the Global Radio News. And she joined us from Khartoum. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. FICK: Thank you so much for having us.

Ms. MAZEN: Thanks, Michel.

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