Like other Arab dictators, General ‘Umar Hassan al-Bashir thinks that nothing can offset the precipitous decline in public support for his regime like prattling about democracy and holding elections boycotted by all major opposition groups. In a press conference in Khartoum on December 29, the head of Sudan’s General Election Authority, ‘Abd al-Mun’im al-Zayn al-Nahhas, announced that Bashir won a second (and, under the constitution, last) five-year term as president, obtaining 85.6 percent of the vote. The nearest challenger was former president Ja’afar al-Numeiri, the former military dictator who was deposed in a military coup in 1985 and who returned recently from exile, winning 9.6 percent of the vote. Three other challengers took no more than 5.6 percent combined.
The presidential election was held with legislative elections designed to fill the vacuum created by Bashir’s move in December 1999 to impose a state of emergency and dissolve parliament in order to remove his former ally, Dr Hassan al-Turabi, from his main base of power in the legislature. The move sidelined Turabi, then parliamentary speaker, who was pushing legislation to curtail the president’s powers.
Shortly before they were held, Bashir described the legislative elections as being intended to fill the vacuum created by the dissolution of parliament. Despite the existing indications that Bashir will find the new parliament easy to manipulate, there are no constitutional or institutional safeguards that prevent such a vacuum from emerging again should disputes burst open between the legislature and the president.
Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party (NCP) retained its majority in the parliament. That raised no eyebrows, as 112 NCP candidates were guaranteed their seats in the 360-member parliament as they were running unchallenged. Civil war prevented voting in three of Sudan’s 26 provinces, where US-backed rebels have been waging a separatist war for 17 years. Stoked by Washington and a host of US allies, this bloody conflagration is believed to have killed some 2 million Sudanese either in fighting or in war-related famine and disease.
Nahhas said that the turnout during the 10-day election that ended on December 22 reached 66 percent, with more than 8 million of the country’s 12 million eligible voters casting their ballots. He also claimed that the polling was “fair and free,” adding that “the candidates were given free access to the national media and to the voters.” But to accept Nahhas’s shrill assertions at face value is difficult. His inflated claims are simply unrealistic, reflecting the hunger of a regime whose leader’s quest for popular legitimacy is getting desperate.
Several opposition groups and independent sources have rejected reports of a high turnout, estimating the percentage of those who bothered to vote somewhere between 7 and 10 percent. Ali al-Hajj Muhammad, deputy secretary general of the Popular National Congress (PNC), successor to the National Islamic Front and headed by Turabi, described the elections as “cooked and prearranged” and the official announcement of Bashir’s massive electoral victory as “imaginary and untrue,” adding that the results had been “known in advance.” He declared that the PNC’s own electoral monitoring system showed that Numeiri had won most of the votes from the army and police.
Sarah Naghdallah, spokeswoman for the Ummah Party, headed by al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, who returned from self-imposed exile in November, dismissed the polling as “a meaningless farce that does not give the regime any legitimacy.” She added that “much fraudulence” characterized the election, which “was boycotted and unrecognized by the people.” She also maintained that Bashir’s “totalitarian regime” is bereft of a mandate to rule or to organize elections, as it had seized power by a military coup. This was echoed by Muhammad Isma’il al-Azhari, an official of the opposition Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who said: “Those ruling by the gun need not hold elections.”
Even Numeiri, whose party, the People’s Working Forces (PWF), took part in the elections, complained of massive irregularities, saying that he did not find the names of his own family members on the voters’ registration list on the first day of the electionsóa complaint echoed by many ordinary Sudanese. PWF spokesman, ‘Abd al-Hafiz Rajab, charged that the results were rigged and griped about “many complaints that went unanswered” and “many irregularities that we are going to reveal.” The group’s officials also charge that thousands of unstamped ballots were found outside voting boxes: a clear evidence of ballot-stuffing.
Another of Bashir’s rivals, Samaw’al Hussein Mansour, a little-known contestant believed widely to be affiliated with the president, conceded defeat and congratulated Bashir on his re-election. Mansour, who won 1.3 percent of the vote, made the oxymoronic statement that “the election was fair despite some irregularities by some immoral persons.” Yet around a dozen candidates filed suits in which they complained of irregularities in their constituencies and demanded that the results be postponed until the judiciary announces its verdict on the matter. The candidates also complained of the government’s use of public funds and facilities to support its candidates.
As elections got underway, some election officials acknowledged that people had indeed been shunning polling stations, but they blamed the low turnout on Ramadan. Osman Ahmed, a supervisor at a polling station in southern Khartoum, was quoted by AFP as saying that “Ramadan is not a suitable time for elections” because voters were tired from fasting or preparing for Eid al-Fitr. He estimated the number of voters who voted at his station at about 300 out of 800. The government also admitted in its own roundabout way that the turnout was low when it announced a public holiday in the Khartoum province on December 19 in an effort to encourage people to go to the polling stations.
Following the announcement of the election results, Bashir appeared on Sudanese television to promise to be “president for all Sudanese people, not only for the National Congress party”. He also pledged to end the 17-year civil war in the south of Sudan “through negotiation and dialogue.” He claimed that his regime is “presenting a fair democracy that is free of any shortcomings as testified by the monitors and by the Sudanese people who know democracy and who love freedom.” Bashir was referring to monitors from the Arab League and the Organization of African Unity, who issued a report testifying that the elections were “free and fair.” These were the only international bodies that accepted Bashir’s invitation to monitor the election. The two organizations, both of which are composed of member-states ruled mainly by authoritarian regimes, have a history of lending diplomatic and political support to dictatorial and despotic governments throughout the Arab world and Africa. The European Union declined Bashir’s invitation to avoid being seen to sanction the vote.
Bashir’s “fair and free” elections were also marred by violence. Scores of people demonstrated in front of the headquarters of the General Election Authority to protest what they described as vote-rigging in the Umm Durman constituency. Two protesters were injured when the police used force to disperse the demonstration; two others were arrested. Likewise, four people were killed and several others, including one policeman, were injured, some seriously, in clashes on December 21 in the province of Northern Kurdufan some 400 kilometres to the west of Khartoum.
The elections were designed to give the regime a democratic fig-leaf, as well as to pack the legislature with Bashir’s henchmen and purge it of all Turabi’s supporters. However Bashir himself, who on December 31 extended the state of emergency in the country for another year, soon undid this faÁade of popular support. Two days later, the police arrested three bodyguards of Turabi’s after breaking up a meeting of the PNC by force. The government-run SUNA newsagency described the PNC meeting, which was chaired by Turabi himself, as “unauthorized” and said that it involved unspecified “secret activities.”
Obviously cosmetic, flawed and rigged elections are not enough to enable Bashir to shed the megalomaniac propensities of a general who rode to power on the turrets of tanks.