One election does not change the political culture of a society overnight

I have just returned from Sudan following the country’s first elections in a quarter of a century. For the first time since 1986, the Sudanese people were able to cast their votes for the more than 15,000 candidates contesting in local, state, and national elections.

The significance of such a development must not be understated. Sudan is a vast country – the largest in Africa. It measures some 1200 miles north to south and over 800 miles east to west. Until 2005 the country was embroiled in a devastating, decades-long civil war between the government in Khartoum in the north and the southern Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement in which millions of people were killed or displaced.

This month’s elections are a key pillar of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), signed in 2005, which finally brought the war to an end. Yet the nation remains deeply divided along tribal, ethnic, religious and political lines and its people are beset by humanitarian problems of the severest nature.

The Carter Center has been deeply involved in Sudan since 1986, with both food production and health programs, and continuing efforts to promote peace and democracy. We were first invited to monitor the elections in February 2008 by authorities in both North and South Sudan, and deployed long-term observers from then until the election, when the number of observers was increased to 70.

The Center has been a pioneer in election observation; since its establishment, we have observed more than 75 elections in Africa, Latin America and Asia. This was by far the most complex and challenging.

I was in Sudan to chair the Carter Center’s election monitoring delegation and was delighted to be joined by my friend and fellow Elder, Lakhdar Brahimi, as co-chair. We met with other international delegations, the National Election Commission, the leaders of opposition parties (including those who withdrew from contention), and also candidates Al Bashir and Salva Kiir, presidents and leaders of the most dominant parties. We urged them to work for a unity government if they won.

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