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 allies launched a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi. Once in power, Bashir banned political parties, dissolved trade unions, and prohibited demonstrations. He was reelected after running unopposed in 1996 and again, with 86.5 percent of the vote, in  2000 -- the second rigged election of his tenure.

Sudanese politics are best understood as a struggle for control by an elite center over a vast and marginalized periphery -- a long-standing dynamic that was entrenched under British rule, from 1899 to 1956. During Bashir's reign, the most visible manifestation of this center-periphery tension has been the civil war between his NCP government and the main opposition group in the country's south, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) -- a conflict that led to the deaths of two million people over the course of  two decades. And it was just as this war was coming to an end that rebel groups in Darfur took up arms to fight for representation in their marginalized area of the country.

The idea of a democratic election was put on the Sudanese agenda largely at the behest of the United States during negotiations to bring the north-south war to an end. The concluding document of those negotiations, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), was signed in January 2005. It set out an ambitious program for a multistage transition period to democratic rule and promised southerners a referendum on secession from Sudan in 2011.

At the time, neither the NCP nor the SPLM was particularly keen to hold an election that risked diminishing the seat allocations assigned to them for the pre-election period. But the U.S. government insisted there could be no democratic transformation of Sudan unless citizens went to the polls. Steeped in U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy agenda of democracy promotion, the architects of this grand vision focused not only on representation for the marginalized south but envisaged citizens in all of Sudan's peripheral areas voting for representatives who would serve their interests.

Back in 2005, there was a compelling logic to this. The six-year interim period between the signing of the CPA and the 2011 referendum was designed to sell southerners on the benefits of remaining part of a unified Sudan. They would see development in their region, the theory went, and get a taste of a new Sudan -- where repressive laws would be revoked and human rights would be respected. A national election held halfway through the period would reinforce these changes, and southerners would have over two years between the election and the referendum to experience life under democratic rule.
But nearly five years later, progress toward democratization has, if anything, gone into reverse. It is already clear that if the election takes place in April 2010, it will be under conditions that make a mockery of democratic principles. And since the elections have been delayed on multiple occasions, they are now scheduled to take place a mere eight months before the referendum in which southerners are almost certain to vote for independence. The international community is pouring millions of dollars into the formation of a government that will likely be dissolved just months after taking office.

Driving into town from Khartoum's international airport, visitors are greeted by a slew of pro-NCP billboards featuring heavily airbrushed images of Bashir in military or religious attire. "Bashir is our dignity!" they proclaim. Even Bashir's indictment by the International Criminal Court has been spun by the NCP. As the state-run media tell it, Bashir's indictment was an attack on the Sudanese people; voting for him, therefore, is an act of patriotism.

Meanwhile, for Sudan's opposition parties, making even the most basic political statement entails extreme risk. In mid-August, I met with Hassan al-Turabi, a key Islamist involved in orchestrating the 1989 military coup that brought Bashir to power. (They later had a falling out after Bashir suspected Turabi of plotting to overthrow him.) Midway through our interview, one of his several attendants insisted he take an urgent call. The leader of the Sudan Congress Party, a minor opposition group, was being detained by Sudan's omnipresent security services for trying to hold a public meeting. "How can we hold an election if we can't even hold a meeting?" Turabi asked. "We are living under an absolute dictatorship."

As a former host to Osama bin Laden, Turabi is not the most trustworthy of characters, but when it comes to the topic of repression, he is not exaggerating. Sudan's National Security Act has long enabled security forces to detain anyone without any justification for renewable periods of up to 90 days. Parliament has "reformed" the law to reduce the time detainees can be held, but the NCP-controlled intelligence service retains the power to detain its opponents. This means that the "ghost houses," where intelligence agents torture detainees, are unlikely to disappear.

The government may not be willing to reform repressive laws, but it is prepared to use its largesse to attempt to reform potential dissidents. The first thing I noticed at the Khartoum residence of the former Darfur rebel Minni Minawi was the Sudanese government license plate on his brand-new black Mercedes. Appointed a presidential adviser after being the only rebel leader to sign the ill-fated 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, Minawi has been living comfortably in Khartoum, doing nothing for those he once claimed to represent.

Most dispiriting of all my meetings was the one with Ghazi Suleiman -- the man once referred to as "the godfather of human rights in Sudan." Responding to allegations of rape in Darfur, Suleiman now parrots Bashir's line, "They are all false. . . . I have been to Darfur and met a woman who had claimed she was raped," he said. "I asked her what does this word 'rape' mean? She had no answer." It seemed fruitless to point out that a woman who had been raped might not want to tell her traumatic story to a skeptical male stranger. According to Suleiman, "Now is the best time in the history of Sudan."

For those who cannot be co-opted, intimidation seems to be the NCP's preferred tactic. While I was in Khartoum, the government threatened to lift the parliamentary immunity of Yasir Arman, the head of the SPLM's northern delegation, for speaking out against public order laws. These vaguely worded morality laws serve as ideal vehicles for harassing anyone who has fallen out of favor with the government. "Yasir Arman is an MP, a prominent figure -- and they manage to bully him," said Salih Mahmoud Osman, a globally acclaimed human rights activist and a member of the Sudanese parliament. "Imagine what it is like for ordinary people. How can they possibly vote freely? "We've been hearing the U.S. government has agreed to donate $21 million for elections. We know the Carter Center has been holding workshops. But elections are supposed to be about the will of the people. To hold an election in this climate . . ." Osman's voice trailed off in despair.

Sudanese citizens are being asked to go to the polls for their first "democratic" election in over two decades under decidedly undemocratic circumstances. Even in the semi-autonomous south of the country, where repression is less overt, potential voters face significant hurdles. In an area where the UN reports a literacy rate of 24 percent (only 12 percent for women), voters are being asked to complete 12 separate ballots. Members of the international community -- which has signed up to fund a significant portion of the election (the UN has just announced a $91 million donation to the Bashir-appointed National Elections Commission) -- must ask whether they should be supporting this election at all. As one Sudanese academic who requested anonymity put it: "Elections with what objective? Legitimating an illegitimate regime?"

Bashir and the NCP have maneuvered themselves into something of a win-win situation. If the election goes forward, they are assured of a victory; if the election does not take place, they stay in power. As the NCP sees it, the key difference is that if the election happens, the indicted war criminal Bashir will become the democratically elected Bashir, granting the ruling regime a veneer of legitimacy. For Sudanese citizens and their outside supporters, this will undermine any push for a true democratic transformation.

While the world's attention has been on Darfur, the ruling regime in Khartoum has not lost focus on their primary goal: survival. An election was forced upon them, and they have risen to the challenge. Always a step ahead, they have put the pieces in place to ensure that they will be the ostensibly democratic choice of the Sudanese people on election day. In the NCP's best-case scenario, Sudanese citizens will simply accept this fraud.

But public dissent, a rarity in Sudan, is brewing. Following the CPA, civil society activists had hoped that constitutionally mandated legal reforms would prohibit NCP security agents from arresting and detaining citizens and that other laws used to suppress dissent would be repealed. Nearly five years on, cosmetic reform notwithstanding, little has changed. In the past two weeks, anti-NCP demonstrations have erupted both in Khartoum and in the south, suggesting that even if the international community does not take a stand against the failure to establish the conditions for a free and fair election, it is conceivable that the Sudanese people will.

To date, the NCP has responded to the protesters with tear gas, arrests, and an announcement that such demonstrations are illegal. But this may not be enough to suppress dissent among a population with long-standing and legitimate grievances in a country awash with arms.

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  • REBECCA HAMILTON is a Fellow at the Open Society Institute, a Visiting Fellow at the National Security Archive, and the author of a forthcoming book on the impact of advocacy on Darfur policy.
  • More By Rebecca Hamilton