Sudan’s military are calling for elections in 2023: Here is why that’s a bad idea
Sudan’s military rulers seem intent on holding elections in July 2023. But their commitment to hold an election should not be mistaken for a willingness to let go of power.
Since seizing power on October 25 last year, Sudan’s military leaders have professed their commitment to holding “free and fair” national elections in July 2023 and possibly even earlier. If Sudan holds elections in 2023, they will be the country’s first since the ousting of Omar Bashir. For these elections to be free and fair, Sudan needs independent electoral bodies and reform of the 2008 Election Law enacted by the Islamists. While language such as “free and fair” serve diplomatic purposes well, the current framework does not encourage electoral integrity[i], which to experts is pivotal for widely accepted and credible elections. Not only are Sudan’s generals unlikely to adopt measures that will guarantee for the citizens’ electoral rights. They are unlikely to adopt any measures meeting these obligations, which includes establishing an independent electoral management body to oversee elections.
For these elections to be free and fair, Sudan needs independent electoral bodies and reform of the 2008 Election Law enacted by the Islamists.
While protests against the military coup continue alongside a popular demand to not negotiate, a transition to democracy elections may seem distant as military leaders are strengthening their grip. Nonetheless, elections can be instrumental in breaking from Sudan’s authoritarian past, but only if electoral processes are accepted as credible by all contenders, including the general public and civilian political actors. However, the military is currently in total control of these processes, something which they will obviously use to fulfil their own political aspirations. They can appoint their own representatives to the electoral management bodies whose role it is to oversee that the elections are indeed ‘free and fair’. On top of this, Sudan’s electoral system is rigged in a way that makes sure allies of the Bashir regime win. Additionally, this electoral system is not equipped to handle ethnic diversity and minority inclusion. If elections are held in July 2023, there is a real chance Sudan’s first post-Bashir elections will potentially trigger violence, similar to the events in South Kordofan state following disputed elections in 2011. There is also a risk that the election result will give the military a highly questionable aura of legitimacy
Who runs the elections
Electoral management bodies (EMBs) - the authorities who manage electoral processes - are key institutions for democracy building. The type of electoral management body is as important, if not more, than the choice of electoral system because there is a direct link between the quality of election administration and democratic consolidation. If the public doesn’t perceive the election administration as independent, they will not consider the elections to be credible.
Without a credible EMB, elections will rarely, if ever, be accepted by the public and national political actors. Independent EMBs are the most common model worldwide, particularly in countries transitioning to democracy. Independent EMBs are institutionally autonomous from the executive. Its members are not drawn from political parties, government or parliament; instead, they are widely respected figures, including civil society members, known for their integrity and political nonalignment. The failure to establish an independent electoral commission in several African states has been attributed as a reason for setbacks in transitions to democracy.
Without a credible EMB, elections will rarely, if ever, be accepted by the public and national political actors.
Sudan is about to copy the mistakes made in other African states that have failed to secure an independent electoral commission. In practice, the current Constitutional Charter grants the military the authority to appoint the national election commission. Sudan’s generals clearly understand the importance of who runs elections: the defunct political agreement between former Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and army commander-in-chief General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan reiterated that the Sovereign Council would appoint the electoral commission. Given that Burhan, who also chairs the Sovereign Council, has been appointing Bashir-era officials for state posts since the coup, the military is likely to appoint its allies to oversee elections and potentially consolidate the generals’ political power.
Sudan is about to copy the mistakes made in other African states that have failed to secure an independent electoral commission.
If the transition gets back on track, it is important that international and domestic civilian actors insist on the establishment of independent EMBs. There is an opportunity for the international community to offer technical and capacity building support to Sudan’s civilian political actors to establish such independent bodies which are pivotal for fair and free to take place. Establishing a permanent, independent EMB could greatly improve the credibility and legitimacy of Sudan’s upcoming elections. Many new democracies give EMBs constitutional status to limit sudden change by executive action. Besides the legal framework, an electoral commission requires field infrastructure and capacity – including trained staff – to adequately prepare and conduct elections. Sudan needs international electoral assistance to train staff and this should occur sooner rather than later. Without independent EMBs, civilian political actors are unlikely to gain substantial representation. Additionally, an election management authority appointed by the Sovereign Council will fail to foster legitimacy from Sudan’s biggest electorate - the youth vote. Without a trusted EMB, Sudan’s youth are likely to boycott elections. But even if the election management is unacceptable to these actors, casting either a blank ballot or spoiled ballot is a better way of protesting than boycott. This increases the voter turnout and if these votes are more than those cast in favour of the military, then it sends a strong message.
Without a trusted EMB, Sudan’s youth are likely to boycott elections.
A system rigged for the powerholders
The choice of electoral system – how votes are translated into seats - is not merely a technical issue: this is an essential political decision because it will determines political factions’ seat shares in the national assembly and the level of minority groups’ inclusion. Sudan’s 2008 electoral law introduced a mixed system in which some national legislative representatives were elected in single-member, winner-takes-all district races while others were elected in districts using Closed-List Proportional Representation (PR).[ii] Proportional representation systems are often implemented to generate more inclusive and broadly representative legislatures that reflect as accurately as possible voters’ preferences. The rationale is to award political factions a share of seats that correspondents to their vote share. There are key technical aspects that impact the ability of PR systems to achieve this. Assessing these technical aspects in Sudan’s 2008 election framework reveals that its PR element severely limits competition and proportionality of voters’ preferences.[iii] As proportionality decreases, so do the chances of electing a broadly inclusive, representative national assembly that includes political actors outside the status quo. Sudan’s PR system, by design, enhances the chances of candidates from the largest and oldest political parties, namely Bashir’s National Congress Party, to be elected and diminishes the possibility of newcomers and Bashir-era opponents to be elected to the national assembly. Here is how Sudan’s electoral system severely limits opportunities for electing a broadly representative national assembly. There is near universal agreement that the ability of PR systems to accurately reflect voters’ preferences is the number of seats in electoral districts. All PR systems require electoral districts which elect more than one representative. The best range is four to eight seats in a district. The majority of Sudan’s electoral districts claiming to apply PR have one, two or three seats only – which diminishes the possibility of electing a broadly representative national assembly. The low number of seats, combined with gerrymandering of electoral districts and the requirement that lists or candidates need to win at least 4% of votes cast in a district using PR, all diminished the possibility of candidates outside the NCP to be elected. By limiting competition, this system also makes it easier for established political parties like the Democrat Unionists (original) and National Ummah to win seats. Elections under this system will likely generate a national assembly dominated by status quo parties and the military’s allies, particularly if the generals appoint the election management bodies. The military could also consolidate political power through elections by gerrymandering electoral districts, given that the current framework grants the election management body authority to delineate constituency boundaries. Sudan will have to redraw electoral boundaries, given that current constituencies were drawn before South Sudan’s independence and are based on a highly controversial 2008 population census. In other words, before elections are even contemplated it presupposes conducting a transparent and reliable population census.
Within Sudan’s context as an ethnically plural society, the winner-takes-all element of the 2008 electoral framework also reduces opportunities for ethnic minorities to be adequately represented. The inclusion of minorities in national legislatures is a necessary condition of conflict prevention and longer-term conflict management. Given that there is not a single case of peaceful and democratic conflict avoidance in which the minority community is excluded from legislative representation, it is imperative for Sudanese to consider electoral reforms that improves minority groups’ inclusion in the national assembly.
The inclusion of minorities in national legislatures is a necessary condition of conflict prevention and longer-term conflict management.
As the military has hijacked the popular revolution through a coup d’etat, the 2019 Constitutional Charter and the 2008 election framework is no longer valid. If the military insists on holding elections in July 2023, they will do so knowing that it is rigged towards a certain result: That the military remains in power, only this time under the guise of democratic politics.
This Sudan blog post is written by Amal Hamdan. She is an electoral systems, governance and legal framework expert. Since 2020, she has been providing monthly political analysis of Sudan’s transition to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). She has also contributed to the Media in Cooperation and Transition (MiCT) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) joint project, “Towards a Democratic Sudan.” Her PhD research, conducted at the Political Economy Department of King’s College London, focuses on the process of electoral system reforms within institutional contexts where the Constitution assigns extensive powers favouring the executive branch at the expense of the legislative.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ARUS project or CMI.
[i] Electoral integrity means adopting processes enshrined in the “gold standard” of international law protecting citizens’ electoral rights, Article 25 of the UN International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Clauses 1, 9, 11, 20. Article 25, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/4/a/19154.pdf
[ii] In technical terms, Sudan’s 2008 election law established a Mixed Plurality-Closed List PR system, in which 60% (270) national legislature seats were elected using First-Past-the-Past (FPTP) and 40% (180 seats) were elected using Closed-List PR. The seats contested using PR were further subdivided: 25% (112 seats) were reserved for women who had to run on separate list from their political parties and 15% (68 seats) for political party lists. This means in some districts voters had to cast three different ballots to elect representatives. Given Sudan’s high illiteracy rate, this is overly complicated.
[iii] One key technical aspect impacting the ability of PR systems to accurately reflect voters’ preferences and generate broadly inclusive assemblies is the electoral formula, the mathematical formula to determine how the winner of the seat is chosen. There is a wide range of electoral formula – and no single one produces perfect proportionality. Some electoral formula give greater chances or opportunities for new, smaller or independent political factions while others are bias to larger political parties. Sudan applies the d’Hondt formula, which electoral experts concur over-rewards large parties and lowers the chance for smaller parties to win seats. This formula is part of the category of high-average rules. The other formula in this family is the Sainte-Laguë, which benefits smaller, new and middle sized parties.
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