Roger Middleton: These elections are essential for peace throughout the region

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The Independent Online

Peace in Sudan is essential for stability across East and Central Africa. Sudan at war can drag in its neighbours; it encourages groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army and will create a huge humanitarian crisis. Africa and the world have much to lose if the process collapses. The decision by the Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) to pull Yasir Arman out of the race for the presidency removes the strongest challenger to Omar al-Bashir.

Most analysts did not expect Arman to win but he could have forced a run-off vote. Sudan's other main opposition parties have now also pulled out but it was unlikely any candidate other than Arman would have got close to al-Bashir. Only the SPLM has the national reach and resources to challenge his ruling National Congress Party (NCP). The Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed between the NCP and the SPLM to end more than two decades of brutal North-South civil war sets out a transition period for the country, which includes elections and culminates in a vote on self-determination for the South.

For the SPLM, and many of their southern supporters, the referendum, not elections, is the top priority. The referendum takes place in January 2011 and a huge amount of preparatory work is still needed.

Fights over the elections will make this even harder to achieve in time. But the CPA is designed to alter all of Sudan, not just the South, and the elections were a way of changing the politics in the North, whatever happens in the referendum. International advisers insisted on including elections in the peace agreement and see it as a way to cement the changes the peace agreement ushers in. The US, UK and others have a lot invested in the peace agreement and they also stand to lose if it fails. Controversy around the election could be contained but it is hard to see how serious problems around the referendum could be managed. Democratic transformation should be the best way to guarantee the referendum and its outcome.

Elections will not be perfect in Sudan – the problems are immense from distances to illiteracy. But the levels of trust between the major parties in Sudan are so low that General Gration will have his work cut out to deliver progress.

The writer is consultant researcher on the Africa Programme at Chatham House