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Sudan's ruling coalition may face a test

The presidential race between incumbent Bashir and an ex-rebel could split the country.

October 02, 2008|Edmund Sanders | Times Staff Writer

KHARTOUM, SUDAN — The U.S.-brokered coalition government that has run this country since 2005 has survived Cabinet reshuffles, oil revenue disputes and even armed skirmishes this year.

But can the partnership that ended a 21-year civil war between Muslim Arab northerners and mostly Christian and animist rebels from the south survive a knock-down, drag-out presidential race?

That's what many have been asking since the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM, announced that its chairman, Salva Kiir, would seek to unseat President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir in next year's election.

Under the 2005 peace deal, Bashir and former rebel Kiir, who serves as first vice president, have been jointly running the country. Their parties share Cabinet posts, parliament seats and oil revenue.

But some question whether the fragile government can withstand an electoral fight that pits Bashir, who seized power in a 1989 coup, against Kiir, who took charge of the SPLM in 2005 after the death of Chairman John Garang in a helicopter crash.

"People that break up make bitter enemies," said Hassan Turabi, a top Islamist opposition leader who predicted a hard-fought campaign.

Late last year, southern government ministers staged a walkout over allegations that Bashir was failing to live up to the treaty. Northern and southern armies clashed briefly this spring over who would control the oil-rich city of Abyei, about 500 miles southwest of Khartoum, the capital.

Differences in political agenda, values and style -- which the men once downplayed for the sake of their partnership -- are coming into focus.

The election promises not only to select the next leader of Africa's largest country, but it also could play a key role in determining whether Sudan breaks apart. In 2011, southerners will vote on secession, and their decision will depend partly on who wins the presidency.

There's still a chance that the showdown will never take place. Immediately after the SPLM's political bureau announced in August that Kiir would run, other top officials of the party insisted that a final decision had not been made. The statements appeared to reveal internal divisions.

Kiir has refused to clarify, an indication of what some say is his reluctance to seek the job. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Leaders in Bashir's National Congress Party are accusing the SPLM of disloyalty and political gamesmanship. They note that the statement about Kiir's presidential bid came shortly after an International Criminal Court prosecutor announced a genocide case against Bashir over the Darfur conflict in western Sudan.

"The timing was embarrassing to us, like stabbing someone in the back," said Mohamed Ahmed Salim, a former judge who is registrar of political parties.

As the election approaches, he said, the SPLM appears to be exerting greater independence and openly criticizing Bashir's leadership. This summer, a top SPLM leader called Sudan a "failed and corrupt state." In September, the foreign minister, also with the SPLM, questioned Bashir's "seriousness" about resolving the situation in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people are believed to have died and 2.5 million have been left homeless since fighting broke out five years ago between rebels and the government.

SPLM leaders say the decision to run against Bashir presents them with tough choices. Next year's poll, whose date has not been set, will also elect a president for the autonomous southern region. Kiir is president of southern Sudan, but election rules prevent him from running for both jobs.

If Kiir runs in the national race and loses, he could find himself out of power. Some believe that Kiir's rivals are pushing him to run so they can seize control in the south.

On the other hand, a Kiir victory could complicate the 2011 referendum.

"How can he then support the separation of the south while leading the country?" said Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. envoy to Sudan.

Kiir's chances of winning are unclear. SPLM strategists are betting that he can unite the country's marginalized populations, including those in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains and eastern Sudan. But even some SPLM leaders question whether voters in Muslim-dominated northern Sudan are ready for a southern Christian as president.

"If Salva runs, he will fail in the north and lose his position in the south," said Ghazi Suleiman, an SPLM representative in parliament. "And the government of national unity will crash."

Suleiman said he preferred a "soft landing" in which Bashir continues as president until 2011.

To many, it's surprising that the unity government has lasted this long. For Kiir, it has meant that he has had to pick his battles and sometimes stand beside Bashir despite animosity between them. He has rarely publicly criticized Bashir's handling of Darfur. When rebels attacked near Khartoum in May, Kiir backed Bashir. After the genocide case was announced, Kiir echoed Bashir's call for a delay in issuing an arrest warrant.

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