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Sudan votes: Millstone or milestone?

Andrew Harding | 15:37 UK time, Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Thanks for all your thoughts about my previous post. I promise to reply in detail shortly.

In the meantime I wanted to write something about Southern Sudan, a region which has perhaps more on its plate, and more at stake, in the next few months than anywhere else on this continent - World Cup host included.

Trying to hold fiendishly complex elections in a vast, precarious, impoverished region for the first time in a generation was never going to be easy. And sure enough the polling in the south of Sudan has been chaotic in many places. sudanvotesafp226.jpg

But so far, touch wood, the direst predictions of some observers have not materialised. See here for a strong perspective on all things Sudanese. And here for some of the possible ways things could develop.

"It's not going that badly," a UN official told me by phone on Tuesday, failing to disguise the surprise in her voice.

The broader question now though is whether the elections will actually prove useful to the south, or whether they could yet undermine stability in the region as it moves towards a referendum on independence - and an almost inevitable "yes" vote - early next year.

The optimists - and I met plenty of them on a trip there last month - see the local polls as an important stepping stone on Southern Sudan's path to becoming the world's newest country. "This is the start of democracy," Gabriel Kuch Abiyei told me on the campaign trail in Rumbek, a bustling town in the dusty heart of the region. The 51-year-old former school teacher was running against the local Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) candidate for the position of governor in Lakes state. He had virtually no money, no car, and had already sold 12 cows to pay for his staff and for some campaign posters.

"This is going to change Sudan for the better," said Mr Kuch as he and his team sheltered from a late afternoon thunderstorm. "The rule of law will prevail."

The elections were part of the peace deal agreed between north and south Sudan back in 2005. It's widely believed that the Americans pushed for the ballot hoping it would lead to the removal of President Omar al-Bashir, while other voices warned that holding an election just before a referendum would be at best irrelevant - and at worst destabilising.
Now the situation in the north has been profoundly complicated by the withdrawal of so many opposition parties.

As for how things play out in the south - there are plenty of reasons to be worried. The SPLM - the last of Africa's liberation movements - is struggling to hold itself together. In several states there are early signs that breakaway factions could do well at the polls. Much depends on how calmly the SPLM responds and on the complex web of tribal alliances and frictions that dominate local politics. Then there are the usual tensions along the border with northern Sudan - over oil, land, disarmament and other local issues. Many observers are also concerned about the potential for neighbours like Eritrea and Ethiopia to stir up trouble. And of course there is Darfur. All in all, a lot of flashpoints.

If, after so many years of conflict and suffering, the extraordinarily resilient people of Southern Sudan manage to limp the last mile to their long-awaited referendum next January, and vote - as almost everyone I met in the south insisted they would - for independence, then a whole new clutch of uncertainties come into play. Will international pressure compel the elites in the north and south to cut a deal to keep Sudan nominally intact in the loosest possible confederation? Will separatist tendencies in countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia be energised by the SPLM's success? And can an impoverished, turbulent region which still relies on outside aid for some 85% of its health care, survive as fully independent country - or will the south quickly find itself still-born as the world's newest "failed state"? Please let me know your thoughts.


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