Sudan's first democratic presidential vote in 24 years
KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudan's first democratic presidential election in 24 years, set to start on April 11, is promising to be a heated contest with secret deals and alliances playing out behind closed doors.
President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, desperate to legitimise himself after the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes last year, has pursued alliances with the three other leading parties.
These are the former southern rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the mass sectarian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Umma Party, headed by Sudan's last democratically elected leader, Sadeq al-Mahdi. Support from any one of these parties would likely return Bashir to the presidential palace.
Talks broke down with all three parties for the first round of presidential elections. Bashir would have to offer much more for their support in a second round.
THE GENOCIDE WILDCARD
The ICC is due to rule on February 3 on whether Bashir is also being charged with genocide in Darfur.
If the court adds genocide to the charges against Bashir, his supporters will use state media to portray him as a strong man standing against Western intervention, which may well increase his popularity within some parts of the northern population.
If the court rules out genocide charges, Bashir will be vindicated in the eyes of many. Either way the ruling could boost Bashir's popularity in the short term. In the long term, some in Sudan will see a president indicted for genocide as dooming the country to international isolation. Given the emotion surrounding the subject, this viewpoint may not sink in time to affect the election result.
Due to strict requirements for presidential nominations, only 10 candidates will stand.
The SPLM, which signed a 2005 peace deal with Bashir's northern National Congress Party, and leading opposition groups have all fielded their own separate candidates, in an apparent bid to split the vote and force a second presidential round.
If no party wins more than 50 percent, the two leading candidates will face off in a second round, set for May.
Some opposition leaders have suggested they will unite behind whoever stands against Bashir in a bid to unseat him.
The SPLM could be Bashir's biggest presidential threat with their candidate Yasir Arman, a Muslim northerner who would attract votes in the north and south.
Southerners make up about 25 percent of Sudan's registered voters.
The SPLM -- eager to ensure that a 2011 referendum on southern secession is held -- have not ruled out an alliance with the NCP, but given years of distrust it would be an unpopular option among their southern constituents.
The Umma would be unlikely to agree to an alliance unless Mahdi took the presidency, which Bashir would not accept, analysts said.
The most likely NCP ally would be the DUP, whose followers believe their leader Mohamed Osman al-Merghani is descended from the Prophet Mohammed. The DUP has so far distanced itself from the rest of the opposition.
The party is a mass movement which, even without a strong political platform, would win votes because of its deep religious roots.
Al-Merghani only returned to Sudan a few months ago and has kept his cards close to his chest. DUP support for Bashir would win the party key positions in a post-election government and likely enable the president to retain power.
BOYCOTTS POSSIBLE, BUT UNLIKELY
The opposition has left the door open to a last-minute boycott over accusations of fraud, vote-buying and intimidation coupled with growing dissatisfaction with the National Elections Commission's ability to deal with complaints.
This would be more likely for the parliamentary than the presidential vote. But for now, most parties seem to be ploughing on with their campaigns regardless of the mounting problems, determined to challenge the ruling NCP.
The Carter Centre was the only international body ready in time to monitor the key voter registration period, the nominations and the lead up to the ballot.
Others including the European Union are considering signing up as observers. But given they have already missed so much of the electoral process, some Sudanese say they should assess whether monitoring at this late stage would only lend credibility to a fundamentally flawed process.