Sudan holds landmark multi-party elections

Voters in Sudan are casting their ballots in the first multi-party
elections in 24 years.

The polls for president, parliament and state assemblies are being held
as part of the peace deal that ended the civil war between north and south
Sudan.

But several key parties and politicians opposed to President Omar
al-Bashir are boycotting the vote amid fraud fears.

For many in Southern Sudan, these elections are a prelude to a
referendum next January on possible independence.

The elections are also complicated by the ongoing low-level civil war in
Darfur, where some three million people are living in refugee camps.

The BBC’s Mohamed Khalid, in the Darfur city of Fasher, says the turnout
is surprisingly high, amid tight security.

“We want the election to bring change and peace and to help us go
back home,” Adam Isa, a middle-aged man, told the BBC at the al-Salam refugee
camp.

The 16 million registered voters have until Tuesday to vote but some turned
up on Sunday before polls opened to make sure they could cast their ballots.

The elections are meant to be a significant moment for Sudan, marking
the transformation from a military and Islamist government to a democratic one,
but the election has been marred by the number of withdrawals.

Local election monitors in Khartoum are reporting that some election
officials are going into polling booths with voters and instructing them to
vote for President Bashir.

The National Elections Commission had insisted that the three days of voting
would be free and fair.

But this failed to convince the parties opposed to President Bashir, who
pulled out in protest at alleged plans to rig the vote.

President Bashir needs a democratic mandate since being indicted by the
International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur, says the BBC’s
James Copnall in Khartoum.

The boycott by his two main challengers mean he is favourite to be
re-elected but is likely to reduce that mandate, our correspondent says.

Mr Bashir voted in Khartoum, wearing a traditional white robe and
turban.

He then raised his index finger to show the voting ink, shouting “Allahu
Akbar” (God is great), reports the AFP news agency.

The polls are extremely complicated – all the more so because the names
of those who have withdrawn over the past two weeks are still on the ballot
papers.

“I am voting for SPLM’s Yasir Arman for president of Sudan,”
Elijah Garang told the BBC at a cattle camp outside Juba.

“Even if he has withdrawn, he is my candidate and I will vote for
him.”

The elections are also a huge logistical challenge for a country where
where the infrastructure is poor.

In Southern Sudan, which already has considerable autonomy, 12 separate
elections are taking place – for regional representatives, as well as local and
national ones.

Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir had to take a seat and wait for half
an hour while the cardboard voting booths were set up at a polling station in
central Juba.

Under the gaze of international observers, Mr Kiir spent 20 minutes
casting his votes.

He put one of his ballot papers in the wrong box, Reuters news agency reports.

“I have voted and there was no problem. I’ve never voted in my
life. I hope it will be the formation for a democratic process in south
Sudan,” he said.

Many there are already looking beyond these elections to next January’s
referendum, when southerners will vote on possible independence.

The north-south civil war ended in 2005, with a deal for the Sudan
People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) to share power with Mr Bashir’s National
Congress Party nationally, while run affairs in the south on its own.

President Bashir has said he will accept the referendum result, even if
it favours independence for the south.

However, the country’s oil fields lie along the north-south border and
some fear that an independence bid could lead to renewed conflict.

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