For the past week, activists have been clamoring for the United States to condemn Sudan’s elections. When polls opened on Monday, acting director of the Save Darfur coalition Mark Lotwis said, “When the election is over, the Obama administration should declare that results of the election are illegitimate.”
Well, polls are now closed. And pretty soon, the Obama administration will have a choice to make.
In terms of the outcome of the elections, few doubt that president Omar al Bashir will win a five year term in office. In part, this is because his party engineered it. Also, Sudan’s main opposition leaders said they would boycott the election–but only did so only before the polls opened, meaning their names were still on the ballot. Results are due next week.
At first, it seemed the United States was offering its full blessing when US Sudan Envoy Scott Gration said he had confidence that the elections were going to be “as free and as fair as possible.” That line was walked back a bit by the State Department’s spokesperson, but not before affirming the elections as a “critical milestone for the Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
As polls opened in Sudan, the hedging continued. Exhibit A is this exchange with State Department spokesperson P.J Crowley, which took place on Monday.
QUESTION: On the same subject, a lot of these Sudan activist groups are saying that this was a sham and the government never really relented on allowing the opposition to have media coverage and that it’s already clear this was a setback for the whole CPA, including the referendum that they’re going to have.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we have said, we’ve had concerns about the atmosphere and the environment in the run-up to the election, and we will evaluate what happens now. Let’s let the election actually occur. Let’s have the international observers report on what they saw, and then we’ll evaluate the results from there.
That said, the election, as we have noted, is a significant step towards full implementation of the CPA. Obviously, it’s going to be a difficult election for Sudan to carry out. They haven’t done this in a while. So we will not be surprised if there are irregularities. There’s some evidence that there have been some difficulties in the first two days of voting. But it is important that the election reflect the will of the Sudanese people and we’ll have more to say once the voting is completed.
QUESTION: So just to follow up on that, the U.S. position is that we don’t know whether or not this election will reflect the will of the Sudanese people yet, that that’s a decision that has yet to be made based on reports coming in from poll monitors; is that right?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think that it’s a little bit – we understand the challenge that this represents for Sudan. We understand that in the last few years, there have been significant conflict. But that said, this is an important step for Sudan. But as to the particulars of the voting, I think – we think it’s appropriate, lets the voting take place, let the observers tell us what they saw, and then we’ll evaluate what the consequences are. But we would like to see the result reflect the will of the Sudanese people, understanding that given more than two decades since they’ve held an election, we recognize there are going to be difficulties.
QUESTION: Is it the U.S. position that the current difficulties we’ve seen in the run-up to the election are more of a logistical challenge and that, as you keep on repeating, they haven’t done this in a while –
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.
QUESTION: — or more a product of the Khartoum Government actually rigging the system?
MR. CROWLEY: The – well, the – rigging is a loaded term. I mean, there certainly have been challenges in preparing for the election. There’s certainly more that the Government of Sudan could have done and should have done to create an appropriate environment for the election. And – but beyond that, the people of – we think the people of Sudan want to see this election take place.
That’s one of the reasons why we have supported this election as part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. And this election is an important milestone because it is the first of a number of steps that Sudan is going to take in terms of determining its future. Clearly, we’re focused as well on this election and what it says about the institutions – election institutions – that will be vital as we look towards January and the upcoming referendum on the future of Southern Sudan. So we thought it was appropriate to have this election, notwithstanding the likelihood there would be considerable difficulties.
The bottom line is this: When the results come in, an indicted war criminal will be affirmed as the ‘elected’ leader of Sudan. Will the administration grudgingly accept the results as part of the price to pay for keeping the Comprehensive Peace Agreement intact? Or will it do as the activists would like and declare the results illegitimate. The hedging can only last so long. The Obama administration’s Sudan policy is reaching its own milestone.