Sudan’s controversial presidential election on 13-15 April presents the risk of significant violence and disruption in several parts of the country. Opposition parties have declared a boycott of the vote and protests are expected in Khartoum and other urban areas. Meanwhile, rebel forces have threatened to intensify attacks during the electoral period, placing civilian personnel and aircraft at risk, particularly in Blue Nile, South Kordofan and Darfur states. Unrest in the capital will be met with a violent police response, and its duration and intensity after the vote will help indicate the prospects for broader instability.
President Omar al-Bashir’s plans to stand for re-election have drawn considerable criticism from opposition, civil society and armed rebel movements. A coalition of opposition groups under the umbrella of the National Consensus Forces (NCF) have declared a boycott of the vote, claiming that restrictions on civil liberties mean it will be impossible to hold a fair election. The boycott comes amid growing popular opposition to the ruling National Congress Party (NCP), particularly since the secession of South Sudan in 2011, which triggered an economic crisis accompanied by widespread protests.
There is little doubt that Bashir will win the election. The party maintains tight control of the National Electoral Commission, and its ability to mobilise security forces against opponents and influence the results has been demonstrated in previous elections. A secret NCP document was leaked in January allegedly outlining similar plans to manipulate the coming vote, increasing the likelihood that opposition supporters will protest the final outcome.
Political tensions have been exacerbated by growing opposition criticism of the government’s failure to engage in a planned National Dialogue ahead of the election. The National Dialogue was set up in January 2014 as an initiative to promote reconciliation before the vote, but has achieved little. Almost all opposition parties and rebel forces have pulled out of the negotiations, accusing the government of obstructing the process while simultaneously increasing restrictions on political and press freedoms. The government’s failure to send a delegation to a preparatory meeting of the National Dialogue in Addis Ababa on 29-30 March has led to a further breakdown in trust between the government and opposition. Following the failed talks, the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF) rebel coalition announced that it was no longer committed to the process and would resume efforts to overthrow the government.
The collapse in the dialogue process combined with wide popular opposition to a continuation of the NCP’s 27 years in power has raised the prospect of considerable violence and unrest in several parts of the country. In Khartoum, police have so far been effective in breaking up demonstrations before they can take place, though this too has the potential to lead to violence. Protests led by student groups throughout the 2011-12 economic crisis saw police frequently pre-empt demonstrations by firing teargas and carrying out mass arrests, often leading to violent clashes. Protests are particularly likely around the city’s main universities and also the electoral commission, where presidential candidate Hamdi Hassan Ahmed launched a sit-in on 7 April in opposition to the body’s alleged bias.
The risk of armed violence is especially acute in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, placing humanitarian and oil and gas operations in those regions at possible risk. The Sudan People’s Liberation Army-North (SPLM-N) launched a military campaign in March to derail the election and has singled out locations where Sudanese Air Force (SAF) garrisons are stationed as particular targets due to the government’s aerial campaign in rebel-controlled territory. This could lead to a growing number of attacks on Kadugli and Heglig airports in South Kordofan, and Kurmuk and Ad-Damazin airports in Blue Nile state, affecting civilian aircraft supplying humanitarian and oil and gas operations in those areas. All of these locations have been attacked previously, and in January the SPLM-N used small arms fire to force a World Food Programme helicopter that it mistook for a SAF aircraft to land in Kadugli. Such errors may continue throughout the SPLM-N’s electoral campaign, in part as the SAF is reported to use white, unmarked aircraft in its aerial bombardments.
These regions are also at high risk of civil unrest during the conflict and opposition movements have held regular rallies in the area to promote the boycott, often attracting thousands of demonstrators. An organisation representing those displaced by the conflict in Darfur announced calls for nationwide protests during the election and the government’s overthrow. Any such demonstrations will almost certainly result in violent confrontations with security forces.
The duration and intensity of the civil unrest and armed violence during and after the election will prove an important indicator for Sudan’s post-election stability. The extent of the opposition to Bashir’s rule and the realignment of Sudan’s long-divided opposition groups into a more united set of coalitions increase the risk of protracted protests after the vote. Although the NCF has said it would not assist rebel movements to overthrow the government by force, it has said it would support a popular uprising. Key flashpoints will surround the days of voting on 13-15 April and the announcement of results, which is scheduled for 27 April. The ability of opposition movements to maintain a unified protest movement, particularly in Khartoum, will have important implications on the government’s survival over the next six to 12 months.