When is an election boycott not an election boycott?

When it takes place in Sudan.

Preparations for Sudan’s general elections — due to start tomorrow — were thrown into confusion over the past two weeks as opposition parties issued contradictory statements over whether they were boycotting the polls.

Some announced a total withdrawal, protesting against fraud and unrest in Darfur, only to change their minds days later. Others pulled out from parts of the elections — presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial votes are taking place at the same time — then changed their minds days later. Others left it up to individual candidates to decide.

Even a day ahead of voting in the divided oil-producing state, serious questions remain.

These confusions are more than mere technicalities.

They will hinder the ability of Sudanese voters to make clear choices when they start queuing up for their first multi-party elections in 24 years.

They could also fuel legal challenges to the results when they are finally announced later this month, stoking tensions in a country already weighed down by ethnic divisions and conflict.

Take two examples:

1) The boycotts were announced after ballot papers were printed. That means the names of all the boycotting candidates are still there on the forms, with a big fat box next to their party symbols ready for a voter’s tick.

So should people vote for them or not? Few parties have issued any instructions about what their supporters should do, or publicly endorsed other candidates.

And what happens if one of the boycotting candidates goes on to win an election? Observers say votes for boycotting candidates will still be counted as legal. One official, who asked not to be named, said it would still be possible for Sudan’s incumbent president Omar Hassan al-Bashir to be forced into a second round of voting by support for other candidates who have pulled out of the race.

Would boycotting parties really refuse to accept a victory if it was handed to them? Or would they jump in, saying they were competing all the time? One for the constitutional lawyers to argue over for years.

Read the rest on Reuters’ Africa blog.

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