afrol News, 9 March - The fight for Southern Sudan's future as an independent state or as a part of Sudan has started. But this time, contrasting the brutal Sudanese war, the battle is fought in democratic manners at polling stations.
The referendum over Southern Sudan's possible total independence will not be held before 2011, according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (or CPA). A referendum date is yet to be set, but preparations for the secession poll are running according to the CPA timetable and intentions.
A landmark development in these preparations is the first democratic multi-party general election in Sudan for decades to be held from 11 to 13 April. Campaigning already started in February, and Sudan's incumbent President Omar Al-Bashir is favourite to win, based on the Arab majority in northern Sudan, which is much more populous than Southern Sudan.
But the most important fight is not about the Sudanese presidency in Khartoum, where the ruling National Congress Party (NCP) is expected to see its candidate President Al-Bashir re-elected, and where the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) - ruling the south - will maintain the vice-presidency. SPLM leader Salva Kiir Mayardit will remain leader of the autonomous government of Southern Sudan.
The real battle is fought in the provinces on the border between north and Southern Sudan and for the heart and minds of southerners. If the SPLM wins a landslide in the south and in border areas, the 2011 referendum may already seem a decided issue as the SPLM favours secession. If the NCP makes the gains it hopes to do, the ruling party may see a hope for national unity after 2011.
Not surprisingly, therefore, both the SPLM and the NCP so far have focused their election campaigns in the north-south border areas. Not only can a victory there influence the 2011 referendum, it will also influence where a possible future international border between Sudan and Southern Sudan will run.
Because the borders of the possible future independent state of Southern Sudan are not set. If secession is the result of the 2011 poll, three more districts currently ruled from Khartoum are to decide if they want to join the north or the south. This includes the important oil-rich Abyei region, where a referendum is to be held, and the populous regions of Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, where "popular consultations" are to be held in 2011.
But also several districts currently ruled by the autonomous government of Southern Sudan have demographics that gives some hope to the NCP and northerners. If the NCP wins a solid victory here, the future of these districts could again become an issue of discussion, or even conflict.
Interestingly, President Al-Bashir launched his campaigns in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal state, today. This state, ruled from Southern Sudan and on the "border" to Sudan and Darfur, has a sizable minority of Missriya Arabs that are believed to favour President Al-Bashir.
The Sudanese President made sure to address the issues most concerning to citizens of Aweil; economic development and the peace agreement ending the north-south conflict. He promised roads and railways to better connect Aweil with Khartoum; more funds for development projects and that he would "respect the choice of the people of Southern Sudan whether to secede or not," according to a government release.
Also the SPLM thus far focuses on the "border" areas. On Thursday, the southern party launched its election campaign in Malakal in the contested Upper Nile State. Since the peace agreement, the NCP was given political control of Upper Nile. The SPLM now sees it as vital to win the state and handpicked its leading official Simon Kun Puc as candidate for the state governor.
The SPLM focuses its campaign on its democracy and development merits, claiming it has been very successful in establishing institutions and promoting development since the 2005 peace. Indeed, Southern Sudan at the time was totally neglected in terms of economic development and devastated by decades of brutal warfare. The SPLM-led government of Southern Sudan, assisted by many Western development agencies, takes much pride in the advances made during the last five years.
These successes, the party holds, could also be observed in Upper Nile if the SPLM wins elections there. SPLM supporters in the state claim they have seen nothing of advances that could be expected from the peace deal, blaming this on the NCP rulers in Upper Nile. They hope to win people's hearts and minds by pointing to SPLM's better track record regarding development and democracy.
But the SPLM faces problems in Upper Nile and other states around the "border" between north and south. Ethnicity is a great issue, and several ethnic groups in the "border" region fought against the SPLM during the civil war, some wanting to assure their own people's autonomy. Equally, President Al-Bashir's authoritarian pro-Arab track record is not tempting.
Nevertheless, the battle for these districts finally is led by non-violent means. As such, a great victory for the Sudanese people can already be celebrated.
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