Sudan's ballot boxes open amid opposition boycott
Omar al-Bashir, ruler for over 25 years, expected to be returned to power after vote criticised by international community and activists at home
Polls opened in Sudan on Monday morning, in elections boycotted by the mainstream opposition.
The ballot is expected to extend the quarter-century rule of President Omar al-Bashir, wanted for years by International Criminal Court on charges of genocide and other crimes in the Darfur conflict.
With 15 little-known candidates running against him, 71-year-old Bashir faces no real competition in the vote, which has already been criticised by the international community because of a lack of dialogue between parties.
Voters will also elect national and state lawmakers in the three-day poll, with Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) expected to dominate.
The streets of the capital Khartoum were quiet as the vote started, after the government declared polling day a public holiday - voting will take place from Monday to Wednesday.
At a polling station in Khartoum's al-Daim area on the first day of the poll, representatives of the candidates had set up stalls outside, as electoral volunteers and observers waited inside.
A small number of people arrived early to vote at al-Daim.
"I came here because the elections [give me] the right to choose who governs me," 25-year-old Abdallah Mohammed Ali told AFP.
But on the eve of polling day, many in Khartoum had been less enthusiastic.
"Everyone knows the result of this election," said Mutawakil Babikir, a 43-year-old shopkeeper.
As Sudanese citizens went to the polls on Monday, an opposition leader explained the decision to boycott.
"The voting process in Sudan is worthless," said Maryam al-Sadeq al-Mahdi, deputy head of the opposition Umma Party.
"The opposition decided to boycott these elections because they do not meet the standards of freedom and fairness."
A ballot box at a polling station in Khartoum on Monday morning (AFP)
The elections are the second ballot to be contested since Bashir seized power in 1989, toppling a democratically elected government in a military coup.
Bashir, who won a 2010 presidential election that was marred by an opposition boycott and criticised for failing to meet international standards, is Sudan's longest-serving leader since independence in 1956.
Under his rule Sudan's economy has faltered, suffering badly from South Sudan's 2011 secession, which saw north Sudan lose nearly three-quarters of its oil resources.
Conflict has also plagued the South Kordofan and Blue Nile region since 2011, and the Darfur region since 2003.
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, and the following year for genocide.
Some 300,000 people have been killed in fighting in the western region, according to the United Nations.
Rebels have said they will disrupt the elections across the three war-torn areas.
The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–North (SPLM-N), one of the biggest rebel groups fighting the Khartoum government, issued a statement on Sunday accusing Bashir of using the elections as “a façade to legitimise the regime”.
The statement calls on people to “escalate resistance against these fake elections” and refuse to recognise their results.
Officials say voting will not take place in one district of Darfur and seven in South Kordofan, but will go ahead at 7,100 polling stations nationwide.
No 'credible' result
The European Union has already said the elections cannot produce a "credible" result because Bashir's NCP snubbed a meeting with the opposition to organise a national dialogue last month.
The EU’s ambassador to Sudan was summoned over the remarks and issued with a note of complaint from the authorities in Khartoum.
Norway, the United States and Britain have warned that "an environment conducive to participatory and credible elections does not exist".
Khartoum released two leading political detainees on Thursday, a move their lawyer said was aimed at easing international pressure before the vote.
Amin Makki Madani and Farouk Abu Issa were arrested in December for signing an agreement aimed at uniting opposition to Bashir.
Freed opposition politician Farouk Abu Issa greets supporters on his release last week (AA)
Despite the release of the two politicians, human rights groups have accused security services of stifling dissent in the run-up to the elections.
Police in the eastern city of Port Sudan broke up a demonstration by a few hundred students against the elections on Sunday, witnesses said.
Residents of the Kalma displaced persons' camp in South Darfur also held a peaceful protest against the vote at the headquarters of the peacekeeping force that provides their security.
The government has dismissed such criticism, with presidential assistant Ibrahim Ghandour saying the elections are "historic".
Forty-four parties are standing for the state and national parliaments in the country of nearly 38 million people, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) said.
The voting is being monitored by 15 international organisations, including the Arab League, the African Union and east African bloc IGAD, according to the NEC.
The presidential election could theoretically go to a second round if no candidate wins a majority, although Bashir is expected to win comfortably. The results are expected in late April.