President Omar al-Bashir - the world’s only sitting leader wanted on genocide charges - is set to extend his 26-year rule in three-day polls which rebels are threatening to sabotage, major opposition parties intend to sit out and the European Union warns will lack credibility.
As voting began on Monday, police officers outnumbered voters and polling places stood empty in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. Nearly 13 million people are registered to vote, with results expected on 27 April.
The strongman has made campaign promises to improve access to water and farmland and claimed that only he can protect voters against the chaos engulfing several countries in the wake of the Arab spring. “There are those … who aim to do in Sudan what has happened in Yemen, Syria and Libya,” Bashir told a rally in Kadugli, the capital of South Kordofan state. “But we will not allow this to happen to Sudan.”
Sudan election is 'propaganda', says rebel leader
Insiders say the 71-year-old autocrat was shocked by a potentially similar crisis in 2013 when thousands of protesters took to the streets, prompting a harsh crackdown in which nearly 200 civilians were killed and at least 800 arrested. Since then, his critics have been regrouping in readiness for the polls, held on 13-15 April and seen as crucial in affording him international legitimacy.
Ahmed Mahmoud, 27, an activist based in the capital, Khartoum, said: “Almost every day there is another protest. There are stickers, there is graffiti on the walls, telling people don’t vote in the ‘blood election’, as we call it. There are young people talking about disrupting the election by protesting in front of voting centres. I’m sure the authorities will not be happy about it and there will be a crackdown.”
Asked if people are likely to stay at home, Mahmoud, who alleges that he was detained and tortured in 2011, added: “So many more than who is going to vote. The election is going to be a sham. Just look at the rosters [of candidates]. It’s going to be completely meaningless.”
A website, Sudan Change Now, has accounts on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Previous anti-government movements have been criticised as dominated by an urban elite, but organisers say this time they are pushing nationwide.
Raga Makawi, 33, an activist currently studying in London, said: “It’s already happening on a wide scale in all areas of Sudan, not just Khartoum. In the past youth activity would be focused on the centre. It seems they’ve learned from their mistakes and are trying to widen the scope.”
Makawi claims that a few days ago protesters even attacked a ruling National Congress party (NCP) event in a suburb of Khartorum, turning the regime’s own brutal tactics against it. “They threw tear gas – I don’t know where they got it from – and brought down the tent where people were speaking. They saw it as sweet justice.”
Members of Sudanese opposition parties take part during a sit-in at the headquarters of Umma, one of Sudan's biggest opposition parties. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Members of Sudanese opposition parties take part during a sit-in at the headquarters of Umma, one of Sudan’s biggest opposition parties. Photograph: Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
The presidential and parliamentary elections are a “fallacy”, Makawi added. “It is just a political charade. The government is trying to use it to legitimise another five years for the international community when we know the reality on the ground is there is no election in any real sense.”
Bashir came to a power in a 1989 coup and his election wins since have been condemned as a democratic fig leaf. Another boycott by the main opposition parties this time leaves him facing 15 little-known candidates for the presidency. Opponents say he has given security forces more leeway in recent months to arrest leading political, civil society and media figures.
Faisal Mohamed Salih of Teeba Press, an organisation that trains journalists, told Reuters: “When the government confiscated issues of 14 newspapers in one day, that was unprecedented in my 30 years as a journalist in Sudan.”
Bashir is wanted on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide over his long military campaign in the western Darfur region. He is fighting to crush another insurgency in Blue Nile and South Kordofan since the secession of South Sudan in 2011. Armed rebel groups have rejected the vote as “propaganda” and threatened to disrupt it by force. Officials say the election will not take place in one district of Darfur and seven in South Kordofan for security reasons.
In a diplomatic move that could bolster the ailing economy – nearly half the 37m population live in poverty – Sudan has said it will join a Saudi-led military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels – a dramatic reversal of its previous support for Iran. Bashir has made two visits to Saudi Arabia in the past six months and put four fighter jets and 6,000 soldiers at its disposal.
Suliman Baldo, executive director of the Sudan Democracy First Group, said: “Sudan is expecting the end of a boycott of its banking system from the Gulf states and more investment from the Arab world. It therefore feels it doesn’t have to make any concessions to the opposition or the armed groups.”
Baldo, based in Uganda, added: “The government is desperate to be recognised and legitimised as holding a ‘free and fair’ election. The whole thing is a sham because the ruling party has unilaterally selected the national election commission, amended the electoral laws to suit its purposes and systematically attacked opposition rallies.”
The international community is divided over the exercise after the breakdown of a much-trumpeted national dialogue. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, said “the upcoming elections cannot produce a credible result with legitimacy throughout the country. The people of Sudan deserve better. We therefore chose not to engage in support of these elections.”
Sudan’s foreign ministry summoned the EU’s representative in Khartoum over the remarks, which were “deliberate distortion of events in Sudan”, spokesman Ali al-Sadiq told Agence-France Presse.
The African Union, however, will send an observation mission headed by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo, who rubber-stamped president Robert Mugabe’s disputed victory in Zimbabwe in 2013. The decision was condemned by Ahmed Hussain Adam, a politician and scholar from Darfur, as “a very regrettable move and utterly unacceptable”.