By the looks of it, you’d never know that an historic election is underway. The streets of Juba are largely empty; shops are shuttered. Few cars and pedestrians are seen on the roads. Polling stations in schools, offices and other public venues are poorly marked and appear much as they do on ordinary days.
It is, quite frankly, not what I expected.
The population seems subdued. One might assume that the first multiparty elections in 24 years would generate palpable excitement. The carloads of party supporters that typically buzz the streets during African elections are nowhere to be found. It seems that everyone here is laying low until they’re sure that violence won’t break out.
At every polling station one encounters groups of frustrated citizens who cannot find their names on lengthy, posted rosters. All possess their original registration cards and claim to have registered at the locations at which they’re now attempting to vote. “I registered here,” says Morris, a 35-year-old Juba resident. “It was at this exact location and now they are saying that I am not on the list,” he shouts. If ones name does not appear on the list, that person is unable to cast a ballot.
Many feel that the absence of their names from the official lists robs them of a long anticipated national right. “I have a national duty to vote in these elections,” says David Francis, another Juba resident. “I am being robbed of that opportunity, it is terrible,” he says.
Polling officials scramble to address the issue. Many polling stations have requested the original hand-written registration books. “We hope that once the original books arrive, we will be able to resolve this problem,” says a polling station head in Juba’s Hai Nimra Talata neighborhood.
In addition to the absence of names from registration lists, many also believe that the lists are poorly constructed. “These are very confusing,” a many tells me outside a Juba polling station in Malakia. “It’s like it was designed for Arabic, which you read right to left, but changed to English.” He said that the order of names had been changed, with first names leading. “Many of use have several names, but when we lead with the first names, which many people share, it becomes very hard to find yours,” he adds.
When combined with high levels of illiteracy, these issues cause great confusion and frustration. Literate voters who cannot find their own names are often too frustrated to assist illiterate ones with the same problem.
I spent the first day of polling in Terekeka, a small town northwest of Juba. While some voters complained of similar registration discrepancy issues, polling seemed more organized there than it does in Juba. In Terekeka, however, incorrect ballots were delivered. “We received too many state assembly ballots here and none for the national assembly,” a polling manager tells me. “We did not open the station because of this.”
While these issues certainly pose problems for the integrity of the elections, I believe that some of the reporting on the elections is too negative. To date, there have been no major instances of violence or blatant intimidation. These are the main issues we feared and we’ve yet to see them manifest. While the logistics and execution of the elections leaves much to be desired, one must remember that great numbers of people here have virtually no experience with elections. Expecting them to go seamlessly is both unrealistic and unfair.
Perhaps it’s too lenient, but I feel that if these elections conclude without violence, they will have been a success.