This week's cabinet decision to put forward a new election law appears to support the view that some members of Sudan's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) are planning to ensure that President Omar Al-Bashir will run for a third term in office, will win the forthcoming election in 2020 and, possibly, will remain in office for the rest of his life.
The law has prompted cries of indignation, with one of the most prominent opposition groups, the Popular National Congress (PNC), threatening to pull out of the coalition government if the new election proposals become law. The main objection is that there was no consultation with the opposition parties as required under the provision of the National Dialogue process. Nevertheless, the President's supporters in the NCP are being accused of provoking opposition groups into staying out of the presidential race, leaving the way clear for Al-Bashir to be re-elected, perhaps unchallenged.
Separately, his supporters cite domestic reasons why the President will extend his term and stay in power. The plain fact is that Al-Bashir remains politically popular even after almost 30-years of rule and with him fighting to bring the country out of its worst-ever economic crisis. Al-Bashir's strong championing of Sudanese values and traditions, his recently declared "War on Corruption" and his defence of Sudanese national interests on the world stage has his adversaries and allies alike saying positive things about a leader who has, over the years, presided over periods of political turmoil as well as sustained periods of economic prosperity.
Moreover, there is a sense of admiration for what his supporters say is Al-Bashir's "brave and tenacious" defiance of the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). He continues to travel outside Sudan in order to attend international gatherings and Presidential summits undeterred by the ICC accusations that he is guilty of war crimes. Make no mistake, though, Al-Bashir's critics inside Sudan — among whom there are now some from within his own party — and his opponents outside the country sense that the National Government of Reconciliation's united stance and its ability to function as intended is now under serious doubt, and the opposition forces continue to employ all means possible to weaken the President's hold on power.
When I spoke to Mahmoud Abdeen Salih, an opponent of the Sudanese government, I was surprised to hear him say that he supports Al-Bashir's bid to change the constitution and run for a third term. When asked why, he replied: "Because he's presided over the years of corruption and so only he knows how to fix it; another new, unknown leader might bring a new wave of corruption."
Salih is a veteran politician, the head of his own political party and a participant in the 2014 National Dialogue process. He is no fan of the current Islamic movement, which he accuses of betraying the local council — "Lejna Shaabia" — political system, something that he himself takes personal credit for introducing to the Islamic visionary Hassan Abdullah Al-Turabi, when the latter was the powerful speaker of the National Assembly and de-facto head of the ruling National Salvation government before differences split the movement.
"In 1999, when the [Islamic] movement split, this country changed for the worse," explained Abdeen. "At that time, there was no war in Darfur, no armed conflicts in the Nuba Mountains and no disputes over the Blue Nile. That's because we had 17,413 local councils with real representatives working together to resolve local and national issues." He is proud of such achievements. "This country was changed to governance by the elites of the ruling party and popular participation was derailed."
Supporters and key figures in the ruling party, such as Dr Hamdan Osman Hamdan, the Head of the NCP's Information Analysis Department, are adamant that there cannot be an alternative to Al-Bashir: "The President is the guarantor of Sudan's future prosperity. He represents the only sure way for the provisions of the national dialogue to be achieved. Without him, the process dies and the great strides towards political reforms will be destroyed."
Hamdan is responsible for overseeing the introduction of the new electronic electoral system whereby national identity cards will be used to register for and cast votes. He and other NCP members are supporting the constitutional changes required to amend Article 20-20 to allow the President to run for a third term.
The ICC is currently deciding whether to refer the Kingdom of Jordan to the UN Security Council for not arresting Al-Bashir at the Arab League Summit on 29 March last year. The supporters of the Sudanese President within the National Congress Party take comfort that Jordan, like many countries before it, refused to execute the ICC's arrest warrant issued against a sitting president. Furthermore, international organisations like the African Union have asked for the warrant to be set aside.
Such is the importance of the stance taken by Jordan and others, that in an unprecedented step the ICC is seeking submissions from inter alia the African Union, the European Union and the Arab League to assess whether arrest warrants issued against sitting presidents have any legal validity. However, NCP supporters are equally aware that if the warrant for Al-Bashir's arrest is not set aside the President's best chance of avoiding the "unjustified" charges by the court is to remain in office.
In response to my questions about the validity of the arrest warrant if President Al-Bashir steps down from office, the ICC's Public Affairs Office replied, "At the ICC, arrest warrants remain valid, unless the ICC Judges decide otherwise, for example after confirmation of a suspect's death or upon a specific request."
There are no firm indications that the process of making changes to the constitution which will allow the 72-year-old Al-Bashir to run for another term and perhaps even past 2025 is being specifically driven by the threat of the ICC arrest warrant hanging over him. However, in response to enquiries on this issue, one politician told me, "I know the President personally. He has a single-minded approach; his ambition when he became a soldier was to be Head of the Army and to serve this nation. That ambition has not changed."
Nevertheless, claims of Al-Bashir being unperturbed and despite Sudan not being a signatory to the Rome Statue which established the ICC, the ramifications of the court's judgement concerning warrants against sitting presidents appears, in one way or another, likely to influence Al-Bashir's political future. Undoubtedly, the coming weeks and months are to be some of the most difficult days of Omar Al-Bashir's presidency as he wrestles with the economic situation and attempts to hold together the coalition government ahead of the 2020 elections.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.