Two days before the start of polling in Sudan’s ongoing elections on 13 April a quarter-page insert in the Khartoum newspaper al-Intibaha congratulated the former finance minister and leading figure of the ruling National Congress Party, Ali Mahmoud Abd al-Rasoul, on winning the parliamentary seat of his home town, Rihed al-Birdi, in South Darfur. The former minister had no need for a campaign, at most telephone calls as he spent lazy evenings in his fashionable Khartoum mansion and received visiting delegations from the area. His victory was secured because he faced not a single competitor. Seasonal migration routes of Sudan’s Baggara - cattle herders - converge in Rihed al-Birdi, the site of a large cattle market. Prominent cattle merchants in Rihed al-Birdi probably consider Abd al-Rasoul an asset, a man well connected in the centre of power whom they trust to represent their interests, knowing that he still shares their trade.
Unlike Abd al-Rasoul, who could afford a frictionless re-election without losing face among the cattle merchants of Rihed al-Birdi, president Omer Bashir needs the decorum of competition, not so much for Sudanese voters but for the keen electoral observers from the region who busy official media with their statements of encouragement and endorsement. The secretary general of the Arab Lawyers Union announced the Sudanese vote an historic breakthrough and a landmark in Arab democracy, because he was invited to observe it. The incumbent president Bashir, in power since 1989, faces over ten contenders, but it is a challenge for a regular voter to name even one. The president nevertheless campaigned vigorously, not so much to win votes as to project authority primarily within his own party, a mutable coalition of military officers, security men, business barons, professional politicians of an Islamist mold and many who are ready to serve power whatever its character, and very importantly, patriarchal figureheads like the merchants of Rihed al-Birdi.
The president’s electoral message, spoken in readily accessible Sudanese colloquial Arabic, has been a consistent pledge of more of the same, but contrasted with the turmoil of the Arab region. “Do you want to be like Yemen?,” president Bashir asked the crowds wherever he spoke drawing a roaring “no”, in a cycle with Libya, Syria and Iraq as further examples of state involution. The irony being that the president and his regime managed to lock the country under his rule in a comparable fulcrum of low grade civil war and displacement parting with a third of its territory in the process in the hope of maintaining power in the rump northern Sudan. The president cast his ballot in an electoral centre in St Francis school in central Khartoum, close to his professional address, the high command of the Sudan Armed Forces. A stringer for Western media scavenged after voters as the president departed only to discover that the elegant men in the short cue were themselves candidates for various parliamentary positions, ready rewards for their loyalty to the big man. Voters are hard to come by in today’s Sudan! Paradoxically, a rally of the mainstream opposition campaigning for a boycott of the elections did not attract the absentee voters either. Speaker after speaker rose to the podium to address themselves, a front row of amused listeners and a crowd of empty chairs.