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Sudan goes to the polls but the result is already certain

The people have waited two decades to vote but tomorrow's election is a sham. Daniel Howden reports from Juba

John Garang's grave has been given a makeover. The tomb of the rebel leader who oversaw a 20-year civil war in Sudan was dressed with tinsel and plastic flowers yesterday and the approach covered with a filthy red carpet. In the field behind the tiled epitaph, a small crowd gathered at dusk for the final rally before a historic vote that begins tomorrow.

The election that Garang's Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) spent two decades in the bush fighting for, and in which 2 million people died, has already been condemned as an expensive and empty dress rehearsal paid for by an international community intent on trumpeting progress.

The thousand or so people who turned out in South Sudan's capital Juba, yesterday, could barely raise a cheer for Garang's successor Salva Kiir who arrived accompanied by a wail of sirens. A public announcement system told the crowd in the former war zone not to be alarmed when an aeroplane flew overhead to drop party flyers.

After five years of planning and huge investment from the UN, US and EU, Sudan will go into its first multi-party elections for a quarter of century, knowing it is set to re-elect to the presidency a man indicted for war crimes, entrench the power of corrupt authorities in the North and South, and stage polls amid the fighting in Darfur which will exclude hundreds of thousands of unregistered people in the region's refugee camps.

"The best decision would have been to delay the election," said Fouad Hikmat a senior analyst with International Crisis Group. "Neither the North or South is ready for this."

Calls for a postponement have been angrily rejected by the government in Khartoum. And diplomats fear that Sudan is set to stage a repeat of the internationally embarrassing failed election in Afghanistan, although none will say so publicly. "The International community should acknowledge that whoever wins lacks any legitimacy," said the Sudan-born Mr Hikmat.

The challenges involved in staging a vote in the largest country in Africa – in the absence of basic infrastructure, and amid widespread instability – are immense. The stage is set for moving accounts of people trekking out of the bush in one of the poorest countries on earth to vote for the first time.

The choices at the ballot box are less enthralling. President Omar al-Bashir, pictured below, who is being sought by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his activities in Darfur, will stand virtually unopposed after the main opposition parties decided to boycott the vote, citing widespread fraud. Some Sudan observers believe a deal has been struck between the southern-dominated SPLM – the political wing of the SPLA – and the ruling northern NCP party under which Mr Bashir will get the mandate he needs to protect himself from the ICC in return for supporting a referendum on secession for the South early next year.

As one of the few independent candidates expected to win when the votes are counted, Alfred Ladu Gore might be expected to be more enthusiastic. One of the founding members of the SPLA and a friend of the deceased Garang, he has broken with his own party to contest Central Equatoria, the state which houses the capital of South Sudan. "The international community has great responsibility for what happens here," he says pointing out that they are the mechanism under the complex peace agreement that ended the war for ensuring the transition is managed properly.

"They are charged not only to oversee the election but to ensure they are free and fair so that we don't degenerate into internal conflicts." A veteran of the southern uprising against the Islamist government in Khartoum that launched the second chapter of Sudan's civil war, the would-be governor says that the current set-up is not what he fought for. The war pitted the mainly Christian and animist South against the Arab-dominated North and ran until 2005 when a tortuously negotiated Comprehensive Peace Agreement delivered a ceasefire.

What it hasn't delivered has been stable government and development or an end to corruption. Mr Gore accuses election monitors of ignoring fraud and says that the South's ruling party, the SPLM, is rigging the election just like the NCP in the North. An estimated $2bn in oil revenues and hundreds of millions more in international aid has delivered just 60 kilometres of road since in an area the size of Texas that makes up South Sudan.

"The state has collapsed," he adds, saying that he is ashamed by obvious failures in the capital itself: "People judge the South on the basis of what they see here in Juba." The public's frustration at the lack of concrete progress has left the authorities "thinking of ways to rig the election" to get in their "hand-picked men," says Mr Gore.

Like many in the South, he was confused by the decision of the SPLM to withdraw this week Yasir Arman, its presidential rival to Mr Bashir, and suspects a secret deal has been done: "All of a sudden in the middle of the river someone absconds," he says incredulously. "The reason given is not convincing to me."

"These elections are a fraud," says Sophie McCann of the UK-based NGO Waging Peace, which sent a team of researchers to the region to assess preparations. The poll is based on a flawed census that has allowed the ruling party to skew the outcome, she says. Meanwhile the state of war in Darfur prevents anyone who is not an NCP supporter from voting there. "The international community has been pushing the elections despite such obvious problems and corruption," she adds. "They should not be legitimised and it's making a sham of democracy." Another analyst, speaking privately, goes even further accusing the international community of failing Sudan. "This is not the doorway to a democratic transformation, it is the entry into chaos."

Tomorrow's much-touted first step towards democracy will be superseded by a referendum next year in which there will be overwhelming support in the South for breaking away from the North and creating the world's newest country. This was not the vision of the revered leader Garang, who died within months of taking the vice presidency in 2005. He envisaged a unified Sudan in which the SPLM, led by him, would challenge the Muslim North and Mr Bashir to win the national presidency outright.

Yesterday, as his successors prepared to boycott that contest and prepare for their own breakaway state, the rebel leader may have been spinning in his garlanded grave only a few feet away.