Sudan is scheduled to hold national elections for regional governors, assembly seats and president starting Sunday, and the process has been so deeply tainted by the administration of President Omar Hassan Ahmed Bashir that his reelection is all but assured. Given that Bashir has been charged by the International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity, accused of orchestrating an "ethnic cleansing" campaign in the Darfur region, one would expect Washington to find this disconcerting. Instead, U.S. envoy Scott Gration is suggesting the elections will be legitimate.
After meeting with members of the discredited National Elections Commission -- whose drafting of unfair balloting laws and creation of gerrymandered electoral districts have rigged the elections in favor of Bashir's party -- Gration said last weekend that he was confident the voting would be "as free and fair as possible" and that the commission had gone to great lengths to assure transparency and access to polls. That comes as news to such outside monitors as the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch, which have issued reports concluding that free and fair elections in Sudan are highly unlikely.
In Gration's defense, he was referring only to the elections themselves, not to the misdeeds in the run-up to the balloting. And he may feel that he has little choice but to boost the chances of successful elections. If they are held as scheduled and Bashir wins, it would legitimize his genocidal regime. But if the elections are canceled or postponed, the results could be even worse. Under a 2005 peace accord in the civil war that split the northern and southern halves of the country, the south is scheduled to vote in a secession referendum next year; a delay in next week's elections could jeopardize that vote. If that happens, it could reignite a war.
Still, Gration's seeming endorsement of the elections is a body blow for Bashir's opponents and the suffering people of Darfur. It also ignores the facts. Among other documented improprieties, Bashir's administration performed a census that intentionally undercounted internally displaced persons in Darfur and thus disenfranchised them, shut down opposition political rallies and arrested election observers. Conditions are so bad that the main opposition party dropped out of the presidential race last week, and several other key parties threatened to boycott the elections entirely.
The Obama administration is off to a rocky start in Sudan. It can improve matters after the voting by pointing out that Bashir, if he retains his seat, doesn't have a genuine democratic mandate because the process was flawed, and pushing for a similar condemnation by the United Nations.