KHARTOUM/JUBA (Reuters) - Confusion, delays and charges of fraud marked the start of Sudan’s first multi-party elections in a quarter-century, a vote that will test the fragile unity of Africa’s biggest country.
The three-day election could also show whether Sudan can avoid more conflict and humanitarian crises as it heads towards a 2011 referendum on independence for the oil-producing south.
The results are widely expected to keep Sudan’s two most influential men in power: President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, who faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court for allegedly planning war crimes in the western Darfur region, and Silva Kiir, who leads largely autonomous south Sudan.
Across the country, there were long queues and chaotic scenes outside polling centres. Kiir was forced to wait 20 minutes under a tree for his polling station to open in the southern capital Juba and then spoiled his first ballot by putting it in the wrong box.
Would-be voters lined up in the morning in Khartoum, where police were out in force on unusually quiet streets. Many voters were hindered by delays in getting ballots to polling stations, ballot mix-ups and names missing from the electoral roll.
But by Sunday afternoon, no major unrest was reported as people voted to choose a national president, a leader of south Sudan, national and local parliaments, and governors of all but one of the country’s 25 states.
Yet the elections’ credibility was undermined even before voting started, as leading opposition parties pulled out candidates and blamed the government for widespread vote-rigging and intimidation. Election officials, trying to plan a complex election for the first time in a generation, denied the charges.
Opposition parties on Sunday listed more than 100 alleged violations and errors. They said elections had not begun at all in White Nile state by late afternoon because of ballot errors.
Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) asked for voting to be extended to seven days in south Sudan because many polling stations opened so late and many voters, including senior officials, could not find their names on voter rolls.
“We are complaining that the first day of elections was really very bad all over the south,” said Kiir’s campaign manager, Samson Kwaje.
Many Sudanese voted for the first time, grappling with a complex polling process that included eight ballot papers in the north, and a dozen in the south.
Men and women waited in separate lines, dipping a finger in indelible green ink before voting at cardboard booths.
“There are a lot of crowds and there should have been more information because there is a whole new generation that have never voted,” complained El-Fatih Khidr, a 55-year-old pilot who came to cast his vote in Khartoum’s Riyadh district.
Bashir, a military man who took power in a 1989 coup, came to vote at a school near Sudan’s army headquarters, he took 10 minutes to cast his vote while security officers waited outside, shouting “God is greatest.”
In the south, where most follow Christianity or traditional beliefs, there was a palpable sense of excitement as people took part in polls they see as a prelude to the 2011 referendum that could give them independence from the mainly Muslim north.
Both votes were promised under a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of north-south civil war.
After voting, Kiir called the vote “a good beginning” for Sudan. “I hope it will be a foundation for future democracy.”
But that could go awry if Bashir blocks the 2011 plebiscite, which could prompt unilateral secession by the south and likely reignite Africa’s longest civil war.
Bashir had hoped a globally accepted vote would strengthen his hand to defy the ICC warrant, but the last-minute boycotts and widespread complaints of voting problems could derail that.
Additional reporting by Andrew Heavens and Missy Ryan in Khartoum; Writing by Andrew Heavens and Missy Ryan: Editing by Giles Elgood and Jon Hemming