What are elections for? Sudan’s current ballot raises this question in a very evident way. There is, after all, no doubt who will win: Omar al-Bashir, who has controlled the country since taking power in a coup in 1989, will be re-elected as president.
His country is smaller now, following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, but his grip on power is no less tight – if anything it is even stronger – and his National Congress Party (NCP) will just as surely win a majority in the national assembly and in all of the 18 “state assemblies” which have a degree of devolved power.
There is nominal competition in all these elections: there are 44 other parties contending. But none has any hope of anything more than the most local, token victory – and some are widely believed to be sham parties, created to ensure the illusion of an electoral contest.
There are other opposition parties, but they are boycotting the elections. They argue that the whole electoral process is grossly unfair, and it is hard to disagree. Political scientist Andreas Schedler has identified a “menu of manipulation”, from which would-be cheats may dine – and al-Bashir has certainly supped to his fill over the years – from using state resources to campaign, to arresting and harassing the opposition, to the manipulation of registers.
Plus, of course, there are the more classic forms of rigging: a video circulated after the 2010 election showed a team of weary-looking election officials methodically stamping ballot papers and glumly stuffing wads of them into ballot boxes. And just in case manipulation doesn’t work, there are other options: the position of state governor, which was an elective one in 2010, produced some unwelcome results in spite of manipulation – so now the law has been changed, and state governors are appointed directly by the president.
Whether all of this manipulation is really necessary is perhaps open to question. The boycotting parties include what are still thought of as Sudan’s major parties: the Umma party – long associated with the al-Mahdi family – and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has an equally long association with the al-Mirghani family. Based partly on the religious authority of these two families, Umma and DUP intermittently dominated the political landscape for decades after independence in 1956, as the country lurched from crisis to crisis and civil war flared, died down, then burst out with ever more destructive force.
The leaders of Umma and DUP still pretend to be figures of national influence, but there is ample reason to doubt that claim. They flirt with more radical politicians in an endless round of meetings and dramatic declarations; at the same time, they pursue a sort of family politics of dalliance with the regime, for Sudan’s elite are linked by multiple ties of marriage and kinship.
They boycotted - or at least, half-boycotted - the last elections too. Boycott may be, for them, a convenient way of avoiding the painful truth – that their parties, riven by factionalism and hollowed out by a loss of local activists who have gone without reward for many years, could not challenge the NCP even if the more gross aspects of manipulation were removed. In much of Sudan, the NCP has both an organisation and a degree of popular support based on patronage – even though the oil revenues which funded the regime’s generosity have severely reduced since 2011.
The extent of the manipulation produces its own problems. Sudan has had to pay for its own elections this time – the extensive international support which made the 2010 elections possible is not available this time, because of widespread doubts over the fairness of the process. A “pre-election assessment mission” sent by the African Union judged that the conditions for a free and fair election “have not been satisfied” and recommended that elections be postponed. There is local, as well as international, scepticism: reports from the first day of polls suggest a low turn-out and there are eloquent photographs of empty polling stations and disconsolate staff.
But the elections continue. This tells us something about politics in Sudan, and internationally. Sudan’s regime is an extreme case of “electoral authoritarianism”. While the result of the polls is not in doubt, and despite despite awareness of the problems and manipulation, it needs the elections because the ballot creates the impression – however illusory – of two key pillars of legitimacy: the rule of law, and popular support.
States are based in law, the law prescribes elections, so elections must be held. Omar al-Bashir, like all presidents, draws comfort from the cheering crowds – even if the rallies are partly stage-managed. Internationally, he – like others – is happy to stress his credentials as a popularly-elected leader. There is a risk in this: a really effective boycott could turn elections into a charade. But while parties may boycott the elections, voters may not.
In the end, enough voters will probably turn out to avoid embarrassment – enthusiastically or not, perhaps drawn by local networks of patronage and loyalty, by hope of reward or by fear of possible consequences.
Despite the assessment mission report, the African Union has sent observers to monitor the election, because refusing to do so would be an implicit statement that the government is incapable, or unwilling, of obeying its own laws. And the observers will probably – as observers usually do – offer an endorsement of the process, though it may be qualified. The polls will provide reassuring spectacles of orderly queues and statistics of voting, which will make that endorsement easier – and will remind voters of the pervasive power of the NCP.
None of which means that elections, in Sudan or elsewhere, are necessarily or always a bad thing. They can still provide choice, often even in the face of manipulation and nightmarish logistics; the recent example of Nigeria seems to have shown exactly this. But where opposition parties are chronically weak, and regimes well-entrenched and determined, elections may simply provide the opportunity for an incumbent elite to offer a performance which manifests and reaffirms their power.
Boycotts are a tactic of limited effectiveness in the face of a well-resourced regime keen to assert its electoral legitimacy; but boycott or not, it’s hard to say no to an election.