Sudan votes on re-electing indicted president
KHARTOUM, Sudan — The Sudanese people began voting Sunday in an election that will decide whether President Omar al-Bashir wins another term despite his indictment on charges he committed international war crimes in Darfur.
But voters were left with few alternatives after al-Bashir's main challengers boycotted the race, claiming it was not fair. In addition to the president, the country was also electing a national parliament, local governors and parliaments and president of the semiautonomous government of South Sudan.
The elections, which run through Tuesday, are supposed to be an essential step in a 2005 peace plan that ended two decades of a civil war between the north and south, a conflict that claimed some 2 million lives. The vote was meant to kick-start a transformation to a democratically elected government that would prepare the ground for a crucial referendum next year on whether southern Sudan forms an independent nation.
There were also hopes that the first multiparty elections in nearly a quarter century would begin a process of healing in the impoverished country ripped apart by the north-south civil war and the seven-year conflict in the western region of Darfur, which left an estimated 300,000 dead and millions displaced since 2003.
Al-Bashir is expected to win easily after two major parties, including the southerners, decided to pull out fully or partially. They protested that the process lacks credibility and was flawed from the start.
The opposition complained the National Election Commission is biased in favor of the government, the ruling party has used state resources in the campaign and that the number of polling stations nationwide was cut in half from 20,000, making it harder for those in remote villages to vote. They called for a delay, but the government went ahead anyway.
"This is the first time that the party that carried out a coup organizes elections," said Sarah Nugdallah, the head of the political bureau of the Umma party, a major northern opposition group which is boycotting. Al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup.
In the capital Khartoum, early turnout was light and security was tight. Trucks loaded with uniformed security forces were deployed around the capital and police issued stern warnings that no disturbances will be tolerated.
Though it was not an official holiday, many shops in Khartoum were closed.
Amal Saleh, a housewife in her 30s voting in Khartoum, said she expects al-Bashir's party to win.
"I am not a ruling party member, but I think it will win," she said. "We know them better than others."
Despite the boycotts, more than 14,000 candidates from 73 different parties were competing. And many of Sudan's 16 million registered voters, especially in the south, had never taken part in multiparty elections before.
"I have never voted in my life. This is my first time to vote and it is a good feeling that Sudan is going back to democracy," South Sudan's President Salva Kiir said after casting his vote in a polling station in the southern capital of Juba. Kiir, who is running unopposed for re-election as South Sudan president, arrived exactly at the start of voting, but the polling station was not yet open and he had to wait outside for nearly an hour before he could cast his ballot.
"I hope that it would be the foundation for future democracy in our country so that power is transferred from person to person by peaceful means," he said.
Men overwhelmingly outnumbered women at most polling stations in the south. But the first hours of voting coincided with church services that many of the Christians in the south attend. Many in Juba said they planned to vote Monday or Tuesday.
Poll workers said the many illiterate voters were slowing down the process, because they couldn't find their names on voter rolls by themselves.
"I'm so excited because it's the first time in my life to vote. ... It's very, very important," Odama Stephen Moro Dominic, 26, said as he stood in line to cast his ballot. He said he hoped the election will lead to better schools and roads.
Al-Bashir cast his vote in Khartoum.
More than 800 international observers are monitoring the vote, the largest group from former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's organization. Carter toured a polling station in Khartoum at the start of the day.
"I think (opposition parties) want to see a peaceful transition and peace in this country, so I don't think there is any party that is threatening at all any disturbance or violence or intimidation of voters," Carter told reporters. "So we do expect and hopeful and believe there will be a peaceful election."
In Darfur, anti-government rebels called for a boycott of the election because the western region is under a state of emergency and sporadic fighting continues.
Since 2003, the vast arid region has been the scene of a bloody conflict between the Arab-led government in Khartoum and ethnic African rebels.
Election posters lined the few paved roads of the regional capital of al-Fasher, showing pictures of al-Bashir, the "strong and honest leader," and inciting voters to choose the "powerful party."
Essam Mohamed, a 28-year-old from al-Fasher, said he is still waiting to see how peaceful the process is before going to cast his vote. He said mainly women who are not working have turned up to vote.
"I think these elections are important because we want to change local officials. But we are uncertain if that is possible. It is like a watermelon. We won't know until we open it."
Associated Press Writer Jason Straziuso reported from Juba, Sudan. Sarah El Deeb in Cairo contributed to this report.