If the 2018 election law was supposed to unite the opposition and the government in agreement about the forthcoming elections in 2020, the bill which was passed last week appears to have achieved the opposite. Five months and 23 days after Sudan's election law first entered parliament and after hours of heated debate, lawmakers seem as divided as ever.
The vote came after the government conceded 18 of the 19 opposition demands which prompted the vast majority of the members in the National Assembly to support the bill. However, 34 parliamentarians from seven political parties used the vote as an opportunity to stage a public demonstration of disapproval by walking out of the Assembly prior to the vote.
The move has fuelled a fierce debate in the media about the one issue of disagreement – that is – the number of days that the election should take place. The opposition groups led by Mubarak El-Fadil's Ummah Party, Ghazi Salahuddin's Reform Now Party and Ali Al Hajj's National Popular Congress believe the election should be completed in one day, while the government insists that the elections should be conducted over three days and has refused to concede.
In truth, there appears to be at least three underlying reasons for the divisions which have little or nothing to do with the number of voting days. Firstly, the argument is in fact about the "lack of trust" between the two sides. In practical terms, bussing voters to polling stations or increasing the number of polling centres to assist access to voting does not appear to be an insurmountable task to allow the election to be completed in one day. On the other hand, nor does allowing voters more time to vote an unreasonable proposition provided that adequate procedures to guard the ballot boxes from tampering are put in place which the government, with appointed opposition deputies, undertakes to do – under the law.
Secondly, the refusal to approve the bill also appears to be a tactical "get-out" clause for the opposition groups who may eventually decide to take part in the election but can always claim in the face of pending defeat that the elections were, in fact, "rigged and fraudulent". In addition, the direct accusation that the three days of polling ballot is a "cheating mechanism" puts pressure on the government to further prove and demonstrate transparency in the election process.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, observers believe the opposition groups are in talks and will announce a "unity" candidate designed to mobilise the opposition and avoid its vote being split. The hope remains that other opposition groups will join a popular movement against the ruling National Congress Party.
Whatever the outcome, opposition groups would have no "unique selling point" if they subscribed to the election law and then participated under terms agreed with the government. Nevertheless, the opposition strategy could possibly backfire if voters interpret the unwillingness to agree the election law, despite being granted 95 per cent of the demands, as problematic and insincere.
For the first time, the new law grants direct elections for the state governors (walis) and the state legislative and local councils. In addition, as a result of the two-year National Dialogue process, internally displaced persons and nomads will also be able to participate in the election. The National Assembly will have 380 members with at least 30 women elected on the basis of proportional representation.
Despite the crippling economic difficulties, Sudan has been keen to smooth over the political differences, particularly with the 80 opposition groups and parties who participated in the National Dialogue process and ushered in a National Reconciliation government. Recent success in assisting a negotiating peace in South Sudan has strengthen the government's chances of re-election with an announcement this week that one million barrels of crude oil had been prepared for export since the South Sudan oilfields began operating again through the pipeline on Sudan's territory. Sudan's standing to benefit from the tariff charged for the use of its pipeline.
The government is hoping – come 2020 – the economic indicators will be pointing in the right direction, but the opposition hope to fuel a peaceful popular uprising against the ruling party which celebrates 30 years of rule in June 2019.
All eyes are on 19 December when exiled opposition leader and former Prime Minister Sadiq Al-Madhi is expected to return from exile. Speaking about his proposed return, Al-Mahdi hinted to me in a recent interview in North London that a diverse coalition was needed to challenge the government, "…of course my going back to Sudan is not going to be a quiet return; it will be an opportunity for a popular mobilisation to confront a regime which has done a great disservice to Sudan."
Many, particularly among the young in Sudan, see nothing new in the message of the veteran politician. Therefore, few observers expect Al-Mahdi's return to be a defining moment. However, his return and possible unification with other dissident opposition groups is certain to add considerable momentum to the battle for the hearts and minds of the Sudanese electorate. This week's election law, if nothing else, does appear to have triggered the beginning of the political race for control of the presidential palace in 2020.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.