THE INDEX — April 14, 2010

Hope, cynicism, disorganization, and confusion have mingled freely this week as Sudan holds its first nationwide election in over two decades. The election, in which both presidential and parliamentary seats are up for grabs, was originally meant to span April 12-14, but will be extended an extra day after election monitors complained of technical errors at voting stations throughout the country—from regional ballots being sent to the wrong locales, to reports that hundreds of thousands of voters’ names were missing from the registries. The election marks a political milestone for the country.  Less than five years ago, after twenty-two years of civil war (in which almost two million people are believed to have died), the country’s warring factions signed a peace agreement that set the stage for this week’s elections. The terms of the peace agreement, among other things, made the country’s Christian south into a semi-autonomous region separate from the Muslim north, and stipulated that the government in Khartoum hold a referendum in 2011 in which Sudanese southerners will vote on the issue of secession. The country’s incumbent president, the Muslim northerner Omer al Bashir—who is favored to win this week’s vote (if not by popular will, then by voting fraud)—is widely believed to view this week’s elections as a means through which to garner political legitimacy for his ongoing rule.  Bashir, who was indicted by the International Criminal Court in March 2009 for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s western region of Darfur, has been criticized for failing to open up political space wide enough for the country’s myriad presidential contesters to run effective campaigns.  In the weeks leading up to the election, several of Bashir’s main presidential challengers dropped out of the race in protest, complaining of massive fraud and political intimidation. Meanwhile, some would-be voters are complaining that the electoral ballots, at least in certain locales, are not prepared in a way that would accommodate the nation’s voters, many of whom are illiterate. "I have a question," said one young voter to an American reporter in Juba. "How will the elections be fair? People don’t read Arabic or English, and there are no photos [on the ballots] to help them, so how will people make their choices? What if they are tricked into voting for the [candidate] they do not want?" A few weeks ago, when international election observers suggested that the nation might need to postpone its election to allow for more preparation, President Bashir said, “We brought these organizations from outside to monitor the elections, but if they ask for them to be delayed, we will throw them [the monitors] out. We wanted them to see the free and fair elections, but if they interfere in our affairs, we will cut their fingers off, put them under our shoes, and throw them out.” In the United States, Darfur advocacy groups have picked up on this confusion and are using it to level sharp criticism at the Obama administration for continuing to legitimize Sudan’s electoral process. After the European Union withdrew its election monitors from Darfur out of concern for the safety of its staff, the U.S. Special Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration told reporters, “They [the Sudanese National Election Commission] have given me confidence that the elections will start on time and they would be as free and as fair as possible. These people have gone to great lengths to ensure that the people of Sudan will have access to polling places and that the procedures and processes will ensure transparency. This has been a difficult challenge but I believe they have stepped up and met the challenge.” The United States has invested approximately $100 million in the elections, and has kept public criticism of Bashir’s recent conduct to a minimum out of fear that Khartoum might stonewall next year’s referendum on southern secession if this year’s elections are delegitimized by the West. Failure to hold the referendum would likely throw the conflict-prone nation back into the turmoil of another civil war. But political negotiations aside, the disappointment of the country’s voters is palpable. “I dreamed that the same thing that happened in America would happen in Sudan,” said one displaced southerner living in Khartoum. “But not any more. Maybe next elections.”

Iranian officials filed a complaint to the United Nations calling President Barack Obama’s comments on new U.S. atomic policy towards the Islamic republic “nuclear blackmail,” in violation of the U.N. Charter. "UN members should not tolerate or ignore such nuclear blackmail in the 21st century," the complaint contends. "The United States, in an illegitimate manner, has identified a non-nuclear country as a target of its atomic weapons and is drawing its military plans on this basis." Last week, the Obama administration unveiled plans for a new nuclear policy that would work to place limits on its nuclear reserves. The president described Iran and North Korea as “outliers” in this plan, and said that they would be excluded from any new limits, a condition that Iran views as potential fodder for U.S. nuclear engagement against its country in the future. Despite attempts by the Obama administration to engage Iran diplomatically through talks to halt uranium enrichment and curb its nuclear weapons program, progress has floundered in the past year. The Obama administration has stepped up recent efforts to rally support for additional UN sanctions against Iran.

Amidst mounting tensions in the region, the Israeli government has accused Syria of providing scud missiles to Hezbollah. Syria allegedly shipped the long-range missiles to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, an action that was reportedly sanctioned by its government. Syria also trained Hezbollah fighters in using the missiles and other advanced anti-aircraft weapons last summer on Syrian soil, reports Haaretz. "Syria claims it wants peace while at the same time it delivers scuds to Hezbollah, whose only goal is to threaten the state of Israel," said Israeli president, Shimon Peres. Tensions between Syria, Israel, and Lebanon have been mounting. In January, Israel and Syria exchanged angry remarks over the possibility that Hezbollah was rearming through Syrian assistance. Israel went so far as to conduct military drills in preparation for a potential engagement. Tensions eased when the Israeli government clarified that it had no intention of attacking Syria. Nonetheless, a central issue remains surrounding Hezbollah’s vowed plans to avenge the 2008 assassination of its senior operative, Imad Mughniyeh, for which it blames Israel. Hezbollah has already implied that resumption of war with Israel is inevitable. Possession of these long-range missiles would dramatically change the fragile military balance in the area with weaponry that could attack as far as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Syria vehemently denies Israel’s charges, claiming the country is simply hoping to divert attention from its controversial policies in the Palestinian territories.

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