This is a guest post by Aala Abdelgadir, research associate for the Council on Foreign Relation’s Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative.
Last month, Sudan held national elections, and Omar al-Bashir secured another presidential term. Though expected, many commentators are focused on the illegitimacy of al-Bashir’s victory. The election’s results are indeed disappointing, but the real challenge facing Sudan is its uncertain future. The country is struggling with an economic crisis, ethnic conflict, and political gridlock. These must be the focus of politicians and analysts alike if Sudan is ever to regain stability.
Nothing about the April election was surprising. As promised, major opposition parties boycotted, making the election largely uncompetitive. With few options on the ballot, voter turnout was low, forcing Sudan’s National Elections Commission to keep the polls open an extra day to attract more citizens. Still, less than half of the 13 million registered voters cast ballots. The African Union estimates 30 to 35 percent turnout, while Sudan’s National Elections Commission estimates 46 percent. As anticipated, al-Bashir garnered 94.5 percent of votes. While the African Union and Arab League electoral observer missions have certified the election as legitimate—free of vote-buying and fraud—questions remain over the National Congress Party’s (NCP) mandate to govern, given that half of the voting public abstained. Indeed, the United States, United Kingdom, and Norway released a joint statement saying that Sudan’s election does not represent a credible expression of citizens’ will, as did Canada.
While legitimate support for al-Bashir may well be anemic, the election results are only the beginning. For the NCP and the country, there are several demanding challenges to confront. The economy remains in dire straits since South Sudan seceded in 2011, taking with it three-quarters of oil production and half of fiscal revenues. Conflict rages in the east and south as fighting between government and rebel groups continues in Darfur, South Kordofan, and Blue Nile, resulting in massive casualties and displacement. Just since the beginning of 2014, over 450,000 people have fled Darfur. And the political landscape is exceptionally fractured. NCP efforts to bring together Sudan’s political opposition—which has been kept out of government since the NCP took power in 1989—have been half-hearted at best, further alienating opposition parties and leading them to boycott the recent elections. Without merging these disparate political factions, stabilizing the country and uniting its populace will remain impossible.
For years now, Sudan’s political leaders have ruthlessly pursued their own interest, ignoring not only the needs of their 37.9 million constituents but also the looming political, economic, and ethnic crises. Rather than remaining short-sighted and plundering a sinking ship—whether through illicit business contracts or unfettered access to state coffers—the NCP should work to keep Sudan afloat. With another five years securely under their belt, the ruling NCP has the time and opportunity to change course: offer opposition parties a seat at the table; make peace with rebels in the east and south; rein in state corruption; reduce profligate military spending; and, invest in profitable sectors like agriculture.
It would be foolish to pretend that the NCP will adopt this agenda—which is so contrary to its near-quarter century of regressive policies—out of altruism. Yet perhaps the political, economic, and societal stability ushered in by these reforms and the potential resulting growth will be enough to convince them otherwise.