Letter From Khartoum: Sudan’s Empty Election

Will Sudan's Elections Mark an Opening or Closing of Democracy?

Supporters of the National Congress Party's (NCP) presidential candidate, April 8, 2015. Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

At a clandestine meeting in a nondescript Khartoum suburb, a man started reading a list of numbers to me. "Between the census conducted in 1983 and the one conducted in 1993, the nomadic population in South Darfur decreased by just over 5.5 percent," my informant summarized. "This was largely due to the drought, which led to a loss of livestock and forced many nomads into the towns." He resumed his list of numbers. "If we are to believe the recent census, this same nomadic population has increased by 322 percent."

Last year's census was conducted to determine how many parliamentary seats would be allocated to each geographical area in Sudan's April 2010 election. Sudan's ruling party refused to release its raw census data, but anomalies like this one are widespread. With numbers unexpectedly high among populations that support the current regime and lower than anticipated in opposition-dominated regions, many Sudanese believe that the census has been manipulated for political purposes. Distorted census figures like these are just one of many tactics being used to ensure that next year's election will come out in favor of the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), led by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal.

Over the past few years, international engagement with Sudan has focused on the western region of Darfur, where more than 200,000 civilians died and 2.7 million remain displaced as a result of a conflict that the U.S. government characterized as genocide. The catastrophic events in Darfur certainly warranted international attention, but this attention came at the cost of monitoring other important domestic developments. While the global spotlight has focused on Darfur, Bashir has been quietly consolidating power, emulating such despots as Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who have adopted the trappings of democracy while working to subvert it.

Bashir belongs to the Jaali -- one of the northern riverine Arab tribes that, despite being a minority, have maintained control of Sudanese political life for as long as anyone can remember. In 1989, Bashir and his

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