Key challenger to Sudan’s Bashir quits presidential race

Khartoum–Sudanese presidential hopeful Yassir Arman has pulled out of April’s vote, casting further doubt on the electoral process and clearing the way for a likely first-round win by President Omar al-Bashir.

The move, announced by Arman’s ex-rebel group, came after Bashir ruled out deferring the first multi-party polls in 24 years.

“I took the decision to withdraw for two reasons. Firstly, after having campaigned in Darfur, I realised that it was impossible to hold elections there due to the current state of emergency,” Arman told AFP on Thursday.

“Secondly, there are irregularities in the electoral process which is rigged.”

Stressing that his fight would continue despite his pullout from the race, Arman said: “President Bashir is a burden for Sudan and for his own party. He’s been leading Sudan for over 20 years. That’s enough.”

Bashir on Wednesday told a political rally in Damazin, the capital of the Blue Nile state: “The elections will not be postponed or cancelled. They will take place on time.

“Our partner (in the government), the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, agrees with us,” that the presidential, legislative and municipal elections should be held as planned on April 11-13, Bashir added.

But a few hours after the president spoke, an SPLM party official late on Wednesday dropped the bombshell and announced that Arman was quitting the race.

He said, however, that the SPLM will present candidates to regional and legislative elections “across Sudan, except for Darfur,” the war-torn region of western Sudan.

Arman, 49, a secular Muslim from north Sudan, was selected in January by his former rebel group to challenge Bashir in April’s presidential election and was regarded as a leading candidate.

His withdrawal means Bashir is assured of re-election in the first round of voting, unless the opposition parties, which meet on Thursday to decide whether to boycott the election, can come up with a single candidate.

On Monday, Arman accused Bashir and his party of trying to tamper with the polls, after a contract to print ballots went to a state-owned press.

“The National Congress Party has done all in its capacity to falsify the presidential election,” Arman told reporters.

A coalition of opposition groups has warned that going ahead with the polls as scheduled would be, according to their spokesman Faruq Abu Issa, a “disaster”.

The opposition groups say the conditions for free and fair elections are not in place and that insecurity in Darfur will also prevent participation of voters there.

“We stress the importance of postponing the elections until November in order to hold free and fair elections,” said Mariam al-Mahdi from the opposition Umma party.

Roland Marchal, a Sudan specialist at the Paris-based CNRS/Sciences Po, saw the withdrawal of Arman as a tactical move.

“It is a way for the SPLM to side with the opposition which wants a boycott while at the same time keeping control of south Sudan,” Marchal told AFP.

Under a 2005 agreement that ended a 22-year north-south civil war, mostly Christian and animist southern Sudan obtained the right to hold a referendum in January 2011 on whether to break away from the Muslim-majority north.

Bashir has made it clear, however, that unless the SPLM participates in the April elections, the referendum — which the southerners believe will deliver their independence — will not go ahead.

Human Rights Watch has said Sudanese government repression of its opponents and the media was threatening the chances of the elections being “free, fair, and credible.”

An opposition boycott would secure the re-election of Bashir, who rose to power in an 1989 military coup backed by Islamists and who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in Darfur.

Britain — Sudan’s former colonial power — and Norway, a main provider of aid, joined the United States in expressing concern on Wednesday over the polls.

“We urge all parties in Sudan to work urgently to ensure that elections can proceed peacefully and credibly in April,” US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store said.

“We are deeply concerned by reports of continued administrative and logistical challenges, as well as restrictions on political freedoms,” they said.

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