Sudan's al-Bashir wins in result set to split country

NAIROBI, Kenya — The election victory of Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, wanted for alleged war crimes committed in Darfur, paves the way for Africa’s largest country to split in two next year.

Bashir is claiming a tarnished victory as the polls were marked by glaring flaws noted by observer groups, but Western powers are expected to accept the result.

Electoral officials in the capital Khartoum announced today that al-Bashir, leader of the National Congress Party (NCP), won 68 percent of the national vote in the country’s first multiparty election in 24 years.

In semi-autonomous southern Sudan, Salva Kiir of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), like al-Bashir an incumbent at the head of a hegemonic party, won a landslide 93 percent of the southern vote and will continue as both the south’s president and Bashir’s first deputy vice-president.

This $300 million exercise in democracy has changed little: Roughly 10 million voted, many for the first time, but al-Bashir remains in charge in the north, Kiir remains in charge in the south and both men are set to continue leading a coalition government that will take the country
to a referendum on southern independence in January 2011.

That referendum, all but certain to divide the country in two and redraw the colonial-era boundaries, was written into a U.S.-backed peace deal in 2005 that ended a decades-long civil war between the north and the south.

With that goal of self-determination in mind, Western powers seem unconcerned by the litany of complaints leveled at the elections by local and international observer groups as well as opposition politicians, many of whom announced last minute boycotts, giving al-Bashir a clear run at the presidency.

Al-Bashir’s NCP is accused of redrawing constituency boundaries in its favor, employing state resources for party campaigning, bribing officials, manipulating voter registers, intimidating the electorate and the opposition and stuffing ballot boxes.

In preliminary statements, both the Carter Center and European Union election observers said the election fell short of international standards, yet White House officials indicated even before the results were announced that they would continue to work with al-Bashir.

“This wasn’t an election,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of the anti-genocide group Enough Project. “It was an expensive beauty pageant in which the other contestants dropped out because the fix was in from the beginning.”

But even as vocal a critic as Prendergast was pragmatic in looking at the bigger picture. “The key now is for governments around the world to stand up against a repeat of this electoral larceny in the referendum process for southern Sudan,” he said.

A secessionist south taking with it control over the vast oil revenues that have helped cement al-Bashir’s support in Khartoum and other parts of the north, is not the only threat to his renewed rule.

Last year the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for al-Bashir accusing him of ordering attacks by "janjaweed" militias in Darfur that raped, tortured and murdered civilians and forced people from their homes.

According to the United Nations, 300,000 have died as a result of the fighting and 2.7 million have been forced into temporary dust-blown camps since 2003. Al-Bashir says the U.N. figures are hugely exaggerated and strenuously denies the charges, but he refuses to face a trial.

The arrest warrant will not go away but al-Bashir had hoped that a resounding victory in a legitimate election would enable him to continue to defy the ICC and claim wide-ranging support from the Sudanese people. The combination of boycotts, irregularities and malpractice mean that wish will be unfulfilled.

“Political oppression and human rights violations undermined the freedom and fairness of the vote all over Sudan,” said Georgette Gagon, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. “Regardless of the outcome, al-Bashir belongs in The Hague responding  to the serious charges against him, for which victims have still seen no accountability.”

Soon after the announcement of results, al-Bashir, who seized power in a bloodless 1989 coup and has ruled Sudan with an iron fist ever since, struck an unusually conciliatory tone. On state-run television he declared that he would work to bring peace to Darfur and would ensure next year’s southern referendum went ahead as planned.

But the specter of this month’s shambolic and fraudulent election will hang over that vote, too, causing many, especially in the south, to take the new president’s promises with more than a pinch of salt.