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One election does not change the political culture of a society overnight

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Upon his return from Sudan, Jimmy Carter describes the atmosphere on the ground in the run-up to the elections and explains why there is still much to do in order to ensure the country's path towards a more peaceful future.

The National Election Commission of Sudan announced this week that the ruling party's President Omar Al Bashir won the April 11-15 elections with 68 percent of the vote.

I have just returned from Sudan following the country’s first elections in a quarter of a century. For the first time since 1986, the Sudanese people were able to cast their votes for the more than 15,000 candidates contesting in local, state, and national elections.

The significance of such a development must not be understated. Sudan is a vast country – the largest in Africa. It measures some 1200 miles north to south and over 800 miles east to west. Until 2005 the country was embroiled in a devastating, decades-long civil war between the government in Khartoum in the north and the southern Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement in which millions of people were killed or displaced.

This month’s elections are a key pillar of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, which finally brought the war to an end. Yet the nation remains deeply divided along tribal, ethnic, religious and political lines and its people are beset by humanitarian problems of the severest nature.

The Carter Center has been deeply involved in Sudan since 1986, with both food production and health programs, and continuing efforts to promote peace and democracy. We were first invited to monitor the elections in February 2008 by authorities in both North and South Sudan, and deployed long-term observers from then until the election, when the number of observers was increased to 70.

The Center has been a pioneer in election observation; since its establishment, we have observed more than 75 elections in Africa, Latin America and Asia. This was by far the most complex and challenging.

I was in Sudan to chair the Carter Center’s election monitoring delegation and was delighted to be joined by my friend and fellow Elder, Lakhdar Brahimi, as co-chair. We met with other international delegations, the National Election Commission, the leaders of opposition parties (including those who withdrew from contention), and also candidates Al Bashir and Salva Kiir, presidents and leaders of the most dominant parties. We urged them to work for a unity government if they won.

Regrettably, several major parties withdrew from the election at the last minute. Although all party candidates remained on the ballot papers, there was little competition in the race for the Presidency. Those who withdrew expressed different reasons to us for their decision: some said they wanted to prevent an Al Bashir defeat that might cause widespread violence and an end to the CPA and the South Sudan referendum; others wanted to avoid the embarrassment of defeat, or to discredit the process and avoid legitimising an Al Bashir victory.

During the elections I visited 40 polling stations in North Sudan and 35 in South Sudan. It was pleasing to see that voters were enthusiastic about having the chance to vote and they were patient with delays. Problems however, were evident throughout the election process.

More than in most elections we have monitored, our observers reported deviations from rules and regulations, and there was some evidence of intimidation or manipulation, especially by the dominant parties in the North and South.

The voter registration process itself produced some shortcomings on election day. In polling stations it was hard for voters to find their names on voter lists, and there was a lack of basic voting supplies such as ballot papers. These problems were partially overcome by extending voting time from three to five days.

The continuing state of emergency, repression of civil liberties and ongoing conflict in Darfur did not permit an environment conducive to acceptable elections. In the South, there was a high incidence of intimidation and the threat or use of force, and State interference in the campaigns of opposition candidates was widespread.

There were many allegations of fraud from critics of the ruling parties in the North and South, and it was evident that the two dominant parties took every possible advantage of their incumbency.

The Sudanese people are to be commended for a generally peaceful polling process conducted under difficult circumstances. It is apparent that the elections fell short of meeting international standards in many respects. Nonetheless, the elections are important as a key benchmark in the CPA and because of the increased civic and political participation that has occurred over the last several months.

One election does not change the political culture of a society overnight. There is much work to do to ensure respect for Sudan’s constitutional human rights and fundamental freedoms. Leaders from all parties should engage in genuine dialogue to address the myriad challenges the country faces.

Since it last held elections in 1986, violence throughout Sudan has had devastating consequences. It is to be hoped that these elections, despite their serious shortcomings, are a step towards a more peaceful future. It is imperative that the international community remain closely engaged.

The Carter Center: Preliminary statement on Sudan election observation mission

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