Opting Out or Copping Out in Sudan

Cross-posted from Africa.com

All too predictably Sudanese opposition parties boycotted Sudan's April elections. Their case that Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party (NCP) had set the stage to steal the election is indisputable. The NCP manipulated the 2008 census, used national security legislation to undermine basic freedom of expression, association, movement and assembly, and prevented state funds from going to all political parties as allowed by the electoral rules. The opposition was underrepresented on the voter registration rolls, harassed from campaigning, and starved of resources to fairly contest the elections.

But, was boycotting the right response? Opposition parties across Africa are copping out on their constituents and citizens when they opt out of elections. Election challengers lose elections more because of their disunity than their all too common accusation of incumbent rigging. In Sudan, 72 political parties contested the elections and fielded 12 Presidential candidates before they boycotted. Instead of copping out, the opposition parties should have united to reduce the field to one or two candidates capable of winning outright against al-Bashir or stopping him from a first round victory. Take another tragic case, Zimbabwe in 2009: if the opposition had united, especially the two factions of the Movement for Democratic Change, then Zimbabwe today would be rid of Mugabe. The MDC would have attained a convincing first round victory with no need for a second round boycott. Cheating incumbents like al-Bashir and Mugabe are the culprits for sure, but boycotting leaves the population in the hands of tyrants with no alternatives.

The decision particularly of the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the Umma Party to withdraw and boycott respectively left the Sudanese people in the hands of an indicted war criminal. Al-Bashir's party now dominates the 450-seat National Assembly and the northern State Assemblies, and the NCP got 13 of the 14 Governorships in the north. In other words, the NCP consolidated its control over the laws and policies of Sudan for years to come. This outcome negates the Comprehensive Peace Agreement's (CPA) goal of having national elections serve as a mechanism for the democratic transformation of Sudan, and places the future of the January 2011 referendum for southern self-determination at risk.

The SPLM has left itself limited options to prevent the NCP from stopping the referendum; mainly threatening to go back to war and appealing for international support. Neither option can stop the NCP. Western governments abandoned the Sudanese people by cynically using euphemisms--"logistical and technical challenges"--to downplay the NCP's intentional manipulation to return Bashir to power. Even worse, the African Union and Arab League (with the West in concert) judged the Sudanese as incapable of meeting "international standards" so they accepted so-called "local standards" as good enough. "This cover-up of NCP cheating reinforces the pernicious view that Africans are inferior, sets a precedent for lowering African election standards, and threatens the gains achieved in governance over the last decade.

The SPLM would have been better served to contest in the North, gain sufficient seats in the legislature to shape Sudan's future, and give the Sudanese people a real alternative to an NCP-dominated government. Deal-making with al-Bashir and depending on the NCP to fully honor the CPA is an exercise in wishful thinking and ignoring the divide and conquer tactics the NCP has perfected. U.S. interests are severely undermined with the SPLM so completely abandoning Garang's vision of unity and handing al-Bashir an easy victory. The Obama Administration will need a new strategy for the democratic transformation of Sudan with our traditional SPLM allies out, and the NCP so firmly entrenched.

Jendayi E. Frazer is a featured blogger on Africa.com, focusing on US policy and governance in Africa. She is also the Distinguished Service Professor at Carnegie Mellon University and former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.