(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Elections in a volatile climate

Sudanese children in the southern capital Juba take part in efforts to promote ongoing voter registration for April 2010 elections
Peter Martell/IRIN

Officials are appealing for calm during the campaign period ahead of upcoming historic elections in April as insecurity remains a major concern in Southern Sudan.

Electoral campaigning in the highly charged contest opened on 13 February, two months before three days of polling from 11 April, with the results due a week later.

Officials have called on politicians not to raise ethnic or political tensions in a region already reeling from violent clashes.

“During this period of campaigning, let this period be peaceful - let them not use inciting words that will lead to public disorder,” said Jersa Kide Barsaba, a member of the South Sudan High Election Committee.

“Let them not hate each other as parties, but let them come as one people who are Southern Sudanese, so that these elections will end up as peaceful,” she added.

The elections are a key part of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan’s 22-year long civil war between north and south, in which an estimated two million people died.

But tensions remain high in the south, with several inter-ethnic clashes between rival groups. More than 2,500 people were killed and almost 400,000 displaced in 2009. The violence affected seven of the region’s 10 states, according to the Office of the Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Southern Sudan.

“Projections for 2010 indicate that the situation is likely to worsen,” the office said in an overview of humanitarian issues, citing lack of resources and capacity among security forces for resolving conflicts.

In the run-up to a January 2011 referendum in which southerners will decide between secession or unity, “there is a real, but hopefully avoidable, possibility that the humanitarian crisis will engulf Southern Sudan, jeopardizing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement”, according to the overview.

Southern Sudan: a crisis in numbers
2,500:Inter-ethnic clash fatalities in 2009
400,000:People displaced by these clashes
7:States, out of 10, where clashes occurred
2.7m:Small arms in circulation
4.3m:People who will need food aid some time in 2010
1.5m:People facing severe food insecurity (up from 1m)
85%:Proportion of health services provided by NGOs
85%:Rate of illiteracy
57.9:Life expectancy at birth
14.8%:Global acute malnutrition rate
2,054:Maternal mortality rate
48%:Population lacking clean water
15.8%:Primary school enrolment
Sources: Office of UN resident/humanitarian coordinator, Small Arms Survey, UNDP

Hunger is also a major problem: the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that the number of people in the south needing food aid has more than quadrupled, from just less than a million in 2009 to 4.3 million this year, because of conflict and drought.

Security threats

Votes will be cast for both the president of the republic and for the semi-autonomous south, as well as for national, southern and state legislative assemblies.

“Election security is a major issue,” the US Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration told reporters in Juba on 18 February. “The efforts we are taking right now are to reduce the potential for violence.”

Despite recent steps forward on several key issues, tensions remain between the former civil war enemies: the south’s ruling Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Movement (SPLM) and the northern National Congress Party (NCP).

“The single most important factor influencing the success or failure of the Sudanese peace process is the nature of the relationship between SPLM and NCP,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned in a 19 January report.

“The current atmosphere of pervasive mistrust, in which any gain by one party is viewed as a loss by the other, dramatically undermines that political will, effectively disrupts international efforts to assist, and sets the stage for renewed conflict,” it added.

But many fear pressures within the south too: while the top leadership of the SPLM has vowed not to restrict the campaigns of opposition parties, distrust remains high among lower level officials and the armed forces.

A splinter faction known as SPLM Democratic Change (SPLM-DC) is seen by many in the south as a proxy force of former enemies in Khartoum – an accusation strongly rejected by the SPLM-DC itself.

Meanwhile several senior SPLM leaders have broken party ranks to contest seats as independents against the official candidates - including for influential state governor positions – raising concerns it could create local flashpoints for violence.

“We do not want violence, I can assure you that,” said Dau Aturjong, a general in the Southern army and SPLM stalwart, but who is running as an independent for the governorship of Northern Bahr el Ghazal state.

“But I cannot talk on behalf of others: if people realize they are weak and are going to be defeated, they may think of making violence.”

Southern Sudanese soldiers patrol the streets of the southern capital Juba. A fresh disarmament drive has been launched aimed to seize illegally held weapons

Peter Martell/IRIN
Southern Sudanese soldiers patrol the streets of the southern capital Juba. A fresh disarmament drive has been launched aimed to seize illegally held weapons
Monday, September 21, 2009
What they are saying about the Sudans
Southern Sudanese soldiers patrol the streets of the southern capital Juba. A fresh disarmament drive has been launched aimed to seize illegally held weapons

Photo: Peter Martell/IRIN
Soldiers on patrol in Juba: Officials have called on politicians not to raise ethnic or political tensions ahead of the elections (file photo)

Complex poll

“These elections are so complex many do not understand - we are trying hard to explain to people but still they find it difficult,” Barsaba added. “Even some of the candidates themselves don’t understand it.”

Instead, many in the south appear more concerned with the independence referendum slated for January 2011.

However, successful elections are a vital stepping stone towards that vote, officials have warned.

“Credible elections are crucial for a smooth post-election transition to the referendum,” Ban’s report added.

“A credible process will also reduce the possibility of election-related violence and will help to legitimize bodies that will oversee the referendum processes.”

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