While many saw the April elections as a mere “dress rehearsal” for the 2011 referendum, I believe that electoral shortcomings will cast a long and ominous shadow. Widespread accusations that SPLM supporters, including some within SPLM-dominated institutions, engaged in undemocratic behavior, is sure to leave indelible marks on the minds of opposition figures.
At present, southerners stare head-on at the prospect of independence in less than one year. If an independent South Sudan is to be peaceful, it is essential that its government encourage political pluralism. If dissenting voices are met with repression, the prospect of internal conflict and armed violence will be heightened significantly. There are too many weapons, grievances and idle young men for stability to prevail.
A great number of so-called independent and small party candidates across the south remain angry about the elections process. Some charge that the ruling SPLM employed undemocratic and, in some cases, inhumane tactics to ensure its electoral dominance. As a result, intra-southern tensions remain high with recent reports of violent clashes between supporters of losing independent gubernatorial candidate Gen. George Athor and SPLA troops in northern Jonglei state.
While reports are sketchy, the clashes, which left at least eight SPLA soldiers dead, are the most severe case of elections-related violence thus far. Given the extreme isolation of the area and the variance in information, it is difficult to discern whether the incident was isolated or just one phase of an emerging conflict. “He [Athor] contested as governor in Jonglei but lost,” acting SPLA spokesman Malaak Ayuen told the news agency, Reuters. “…[We think] he became angry and is trying to create insecurity,” Ayuen added.
General Athor tells a different story. “They wanted to send a force to capture me but they refused to do this and now they were trying to arrest those officers who refused to go and attack me and so there was a mutiny,” he told Reuters over a satellite phone. Athor claims to not have forces in the Dolieb Hill area, where the clashes took place.
An interesting issue to follow will be the post-election relationships between the SPLM and the independent candidates. In January, more than 300 SPLM members, many of them quite senior, broke ranks with the party after disagreements over the internal SPLM candidate nomination process. Feeling slighted, these disaffected members bucked the system and challenged official SPLM candidates independently. Some within the SPLM indicated that such “betrayal” would not be tolerated and no independents would be welcomed back into the party.
As campaigning and elections progressed, many supporters of independent candidates claim to have faced considerable harassment and intimidation. As results indicated that independents secured only one of southern Sudan’s ten gubernatorial posts, several accused the SPLM of rigging. It appears that in most cases, recount requests will be denied and political reconciliation will be required. Given the large number of independent candidates, their collective rank within the SPLM and their largely negative experiences during the election, it will be interesting what, if any, reconciliation will emerge.
The political issue is not without tentacles in the security sector. Several independent candidates hold senior rank within the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. As is the case in many nascent national armies, the SPLA is factionalized behind various members of the political leadership, many of whom formerly donned military uniforms. If post-election political reconciliation fails and schisms crystallize, the ripple effects would be felt within the SPLA.
As it stands, politicized internal divisions haunt the minds of many southerners. In such a factionalized and tense landscape, it is essential to foster civil discourse and democratic exchange between potential adversaries. I fear that the shortcomings of the April elections demonstrate the opposite.