DUBAI // For the next seven days, 74,000 expatriates will be anticipating the re-emergence of democracy in Sudan, the largest country in both Africa and the Arab world.
The country's first democratic elections in 24 years begin today, and voters will be casting their ballots to determine the next stage in the country's often turbulent history. A president, a 450-member National Assembly and governors for the country's 25 states will be selected. Most Sudanese citizens here are cautiously optimistic about the elections, despite the fact that there is a growing boycott of the polls by opposition parties.
"What we are expecting is political stability in the country, which would provide a better economic situation for everyone," said Abu Bakr Ahmed, a property agent who has been a Dubai resident for the past 11 years. "I have no interest in politics. Therefore, my issue is with regards to the economic situation. I want the elected candidate to have more of an economic focus." The possibility of change in the politically volatile nation has had an impact on the social outlook as well.
Mustafa Mustafa, a 25-year resident of Dubai, said: "The fact is that the Sudanese voter's mentality has changed. "People are guided with what can benefit them as a nation in opposition to how people voted in the past, being guided by religious, ethnic or tribal tendencies." Some 40,000 Sudanese citizens live in Abu Dhabi, Al Ain and the Western Region, according to the Sudanese consulate in Dubai. Another 34,000 live in Dubai and the Northern Emirates.
About 8,600 of the total number are registered voters. The elections officially end the transitional period that began in 2005 after a peace agreement ended a 22-year civil war in the country. The elected president will serve a four-year term. As part of the peace agreement, a referendum to be held next January in the south of the country will determine whether the region will split from Sudan and form an independent nation.
The idea of secession is popular in the south, while the ruling party and current president, Omar al Bashir, favour Sudan's continued unity. Both sides have promised to respect the outcome of the referendum. Another significant aspect of the election is that the voters will be able to cast their ballots for the country's first female presidential candidate, Dr Fatima Abdel Mahmoud of the Sudanese Democratic Socialist Union Party.
She has been presented as a symbol of women's rights for young women in the predominantly Muslim nation. Dr Abdel Mahmoud, 66, was Sudan's first female cabinet member when she headed the social affairs ministry in 1974. Although Sudan's constitution does not specify Islam as its official religion, a Muslim edict, or fatwa, was issued by some scholars prohibiting women from standing in the elections. Many female candidates have ignored the edict and are intent on providing what they see as a hope for youth and the future of democracy.
"Sudan is the land of the unexpected and the future of the country in our next president's hands," said Isra'a al Sha'er, a Dubai-based Sudanese college student. Polling for those expatriates registered to vote will run for 12 hours every day in the UAE, said Omar Orkeldine, the assistant consul at the Sudanese consulate in Dubai. Ballot boxes will be collected each night and their contents will be counted the next day, he said. Votes can be cast at the consulate in Dubai, the Sudanese embassy in Abu Dhabi and in Al Ain.
In order to win, a presidential candidate must gain more than 50 per cent of votes cast. The result is expected to be announced on April 18. If no candidate gains a majority, the two leading vote-getters will compete in a run-off on May 10. firstname.lastname@example.org
Omar al Bashir - National Congress Party The president, 66, seized power in June 1989 with the help of Islamists. During his presidency the civil war between north and south Sudan ended with a 2005 peace agreement. Mr al Bashir is the world's only sitting president facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, on charges of crimes against humanity. Fatima Abdel Mahmoud - Sudanese Democratic Socialist Union Party Dr Abdel Mahmoud, 66, is the only woman in the history of Sudan to run for president. She was the nation's first female cabinet minister. Hatim al Sir - Democratic Unionist party Mr al Sir, 50, went into exile in Egypt after the 1989 coup and returned to Sudan in 2006. His party is the political voice of the Khatmiyya Sufi brotherhood, which is influential in eastern Sudan. Abdullah Deng Nial - Popular Congress Party Mr Nial, 56, is a Muslim from South Sudan who studied theology at Al Azhar University in Egypt. He taught classical Arabic before being appointed minister of religious affairs under Mr al Bashir. He broke away from the president in 1999 and set up his new party along with the leading Islamist dissident Hassan al Turabi. Abdelaziz Khaled - National Sudanese Alliance A senior army officer, Mr Khaled, 65, led an uprising in eastern Sudan in the mid-1990s. His party is a leftist movement which seeks the establishment of a secular Sudan. Kamal Idris An independent candidate and the chairman of one of the largest Sudanese sporting conglomerates, Al Hilal Club. Mr Idris is a career diplomat who was formerly the director general of the World Intellectual Property Organisation.