The expected April re-election to the presidency of Sudan of an indicted war criminal, Omar al-Bashir, does not sit well with the world's pro-democracy campaigners. Sudan has not had a meaningful election since 1986 elections in 2000 were boycotted by the vast majority of the country, according to the U.N. Commission of Human Rights and so holding one is seen as a rare sign of reform from Bashir's military regime. That's until you remember that an election is meant to be about freedom and not endorsing the rule of an autocrat whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) has charged with seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. But democracy's champions particularly the U.S. government, the busiest and most heavyweight supporter of the coming vote in Sudan may be feeling a little more at ease this week after the main rebel group in the war-torn province of Darfur agreed a cease-fire with the government.
The details of the deal still have to be hammered out at ongoing peace talks in Doha, Qatar. But on state television, Bashir outlined the broad brushstrokes, announcing that in return for peace he would cancel death sentences hanging over 100 captured fighters from the rebel Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and free a third of them. "Today ... we heal the war in Darfur," Bashir said. A JEM spokesman, speaking to al-Jazeera, said Bashir's government sought a cease-fire so as to ensure a peaceful vote in western Sudan.
This is welcome vindication for those, particularly Barack Obama and his special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, who view the promotion of elections as a cornerstone of Western foreign policy. The belief that liberty and equality "are chiefly to be found in democracy," as Aristotle wrote, is thousands of years old. But Western faith in the ballot box can sometimes seem blind and naive. Elections in Iraq, Afghanistan and Zimbabwe have been accompanied by deadly violence. In 2006, an election in the Palestinian territories brought to power the Islamist militants of Hamas, a proscribed terrorist organization in the U.S.
In Sudan, however, the coming election seems to be doing what it is meant to focusing one of the world's most repressive regimes on trying to produce at least the appearance of a credible process, and so inspiring progress on a whole range of issues. Few people will risk their lives to vote and a low turnout, particularly one due to insecurity, would reflect badly on Bashir. So suddenly, after seven years of fighting that killed tens of thousands and made refugees of 2.5 million, because of an election in Sudan there could soon be peace in Darfur.
In Sudan's other great unresolved conflict between Khartoum and the south of the country another kind of election, a referendum, on whether to secede from the north, is due next year. The north and the south have fought two wars in the last half-century that have killed 2 million people, and an overwhelming majority of southerners are expected to opt for their own independent state. The approaching reality of that separation seems to have persuaded Sudan to accept what previously provoked them into war. Last month, Bashir announced that if the south did vote to go its own way, he wouldn't stand in its way. The referendum is also concentrating minds on both sides on resolving the issues at the heart of their long conflict. A process is under way to demarcate the border. And on the explosive question of how to divvy up the vast oil fields that straddle that frontline, the south's minister for presidential affairs, Luca Biong Deng, told the Financial Times this month that his government would continue to split oil revenues 50/50 with the north even after independence.
Elections can't fix everything, of course. No one expects Bashir to quietly accept an unfavorable result, for instance, something that is a small but rising possibility with the entrance of some heavyweight rivals in the presidential race. There are concerns about how confusing the vote will be in the south, voters will be asked to cast 12 separate votes for various national and regional institutions and the competence of the election officials. And a poll alone can hardly turn the south into a fully functioning nation. After decades of war and chronic underdevelopment, David Gressly, the U.N.'s regional coordinator for southern Sudan, reckons that it will take billions more dollars in aid and another "10 to 15 to 20 years" of international assistance to get the place on its feet. But after more than half a century of suffering in Sudan, the approach of two votes is achieving far more than sanctions, peacekeepers, the ICC or George Clooney. That's a boost for democracy in a continent that could sorely use some more.