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In Sudan, hope for change fades as election nears Add to ...

As the first woman ever to run for president in Sudan, Fatima Abdel Mahmoud is making history. So is the election itself, the first to allow opposition candidates onto the ballot since the 1980s.

But there is a curious lack of excitement in Khartoum. Voters are apathetic, campaign activity is minimal, and the sense of fatalism is overwhelming. Despite a war-crimes indictment and a continuing war in Darfur, President Omar al-Bashiris cruising to an easy victory, his hands in full control of the electoral levers.

The opposition has been squeezed off the political stage. This week, when Ms. Abdel Mahmoud called a rally on the outskirts of Khartoum, her workers set up 150 plastic chairs on a patch of land - and only 20 people showed up. After three hours of waiting for voters, the organizers cancelled the rally and went home.

The United States, Europe and Canada have poured millions of dollars into this election, trying to make it as credible as possible. The three-day voting process begins on Sunday. But its legitimacy is rapidly dwindling, casting doubts on whether Sudan can navigate peacefully through the tense months leading to a January referendum on secession by South Sudan.

Several major parties have given up, announcing a boycott of the election, calling it unfair and rigged. Even those who are still participating are cynical and pessimistic about it. "Most people are indifferent about the election because they think the governing party will win," said Babikir Fisal, an official of the Democratic Unionist Party, one of the leading opposition parties, which is trying to decide whether to boycott or not.

"We have no resources," he said. "The governing party has all the resources. They're using the finances of the government - and the cars and trucks - for their campaign. There's no distinction between the party and the government, and it's unfair."

Opposition candidates such as Ms. Abdel Mahmoud (who has remained in the race) have found it difficult to get their message out. The official media focuses endlessly on Mr. al-Bashir. The capital is dominated by hundreds of huge billboards of the President, while the opposition candidates are relegated to small posters that are pasted onto electricity poles or hoardings.

"It's very depressing," said Osman Salah, a 22-year-old medical student who cannot decide for whom to vote. "People have been hoping for change for 20 years and there's no change. It's the same old faces, a dictatorship ruling the country. The campaign is very dull. The majority of people are not interested - they're more interested in football."

Canada has spent huge sums of money in Sudan as part of a massive international campaign to stabilize the country and reduce the violence. Since 2006, the Canadian government has spent nearly $700-million in Sudan, mostly on humanitarian aid, diplomatic efforts, civic education, peacekeeping and security.

A visit to the headquarters of Mr. al-Bashir's ruling party, the National Congress Party, finds it sleepy and complacent in the final days of the campaign. "There is no mobilization activity now, because everything is already done," one party official said.

The party has held several rallies in Khartoum this week, showing its organizational machinery. Each rally is attended by thousands of people, all transported in convoys of dozens of buses, often bearing identical slogans and signs.

At a rally Tuesday, crowds of young people chanted Mr. al-Bashir's name, displaying his portrait on their shirts and robes. Some carried spears, whips, sticks or canes, jabbing the air jubilantly in a manner inspired by their leader. None of it seemed spontaneous, since the crowds had trooped off the buses in orderly groups.

Mr. al-Bashir is campaigning on the strength of his economic achievements: developing the oil industry; signing deals with China, triggering a construction boom and improving the electricity supply. It's a message that resonates with many voters. "Most people will support the president," says Sohair, who works for a charity foundation in Khartoum. "There is a lot of progress, a lot of construction by this government."

But this alone might be insufficient for the first-round victory that Mr. al-Bashir is determined to capture, so he has stacked the decks against the opposition. The authorities have imposed restrictions on political rallies, manipulated the registration of voters, excluded many refugees from lists of eligible voters, and controlled the media.

By provoking the opposition boycott, this is heightening the risk of violence over the next several months as Sudan approaches the crucial referendum on South Sudan's independence.

"The NCP has refused to create the conditions for free and fair elections," a report by the International Crisis Group says. "It intends to continue to dominate Sudan, thus leaving marginalized people to feel that they have no other option for challenging the status quo than continued armed resistance."

A victory by Mr. al-Bashir in a fundamentally flawed election will make it even more likely that South Sudan will vote for independence in the referendum in January, the report concluded.

The chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, put it more bluntly. The election in Sudan, he said, is like "a Hitler election."

The ICC has indicted Mr. al-Bashir on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his conduct in Darfur. It's the first-ever indictment of a sitting president, but it now seems unlikely to prevent him from an election victory.

Despite the widespread criticism of the election, Sudan's ruling party has remained defiant, insisting that the election won't be delayed, and refusing to back down in the face of the boycott threats.

"Everything is going smoothly," said Rabbie Adbelatti, an NCP spokesman. "The voters are ready. The environment is suitable. Some parties want the country to fall into a vacuum, so that they can play a role, but they will fail."

The strongest opposition party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, represents the South Sudan people who fought a war against Khartoum for decades. Its presidential candidate, Yasir Arman, was campaigning against Mr. al-Bashir on a platform that borrowed heavily from Barack Obama, promising "Hope and Change" for Sudan. But last week it announced that it would boycott the presidential election, and yesterday it expanded the boycott to most of the states in northern Sudan.

Amani Keer, an SPLM candidate in the Khartoum region, was unhappy with the boycott by the party's candidate. "His withdrawal has made the voters frustrated," she said. "Nobody had felt any freedom here for 21 years. He had raised our hopes, but now the hope has fallen."

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