Katherine Butler: Bashir will gain the mandate he craves

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With a deadpan face Omar al-Bashir cast his eyes around the room and spoke with what could almost have been conviction about how free and fair the election would be.

This was May of last year. The former army general had only recently been indicted by the International Criminal Court for atrocities committed in Darfur. But to the small group of visiting peace envoys and journalists allowed to enter his imposing Khartoum residence that evening, the Sudanese President was at pains to emphasise how committed he was to a credible general election as part of the 2005 deal to end years of war between north and south Sudan. "There will be a neutral commission to manage the electoral process. The government has no part in directing it", he boasted to us. "You can come back yourselves to monitor it all" he added with a smile.

The promised election will indeed be historic. Because it will return to power an indicted war criminal. The fact that the process has been robbed of all credibility by gerrymandering and boycotts will not overly concern Bashir, who danced in the streets after his indictment and whose face is permanently plastered over billboards around the capital.

More alarming is that the "international community" has not yet declared itself overly troubled either. Much has been invested and it would be embarrassing to declare the poll a fiction. The Obama administration has an understandable proclivity for engagement with Sudan, a country it fears could become the next hotbed for Islamist militants.

But having outmanouevred his southern Sudanese rivals, Bashir will soon be able to claim a popular national mandate. That in turn puts him in a powerful position to derail the referendum which would allow the south to secede and seize control of the nation's oil riches. Nobody wants the northern half of Sudan to become a basket case. But appeasing Bashir by legitimising such a flawed election would be a criminally high price to pay for the illusion of stability.