KHARTOUM Campaigning for Sudan's first truly multi-party elections in 24 years began on Saturday with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir dancing his trademark jig and mocking the war crimes prosecutor seeking his extradition.
Waving flags and chanting Islamic slogans, crowds at a Khartoum soccer stadium cheered Bashir as he promised economic development and education under his National Congress Party, which has dominated Sudan politics for more than 20 years.
"Our program is to complete (our) program -- to change Sudan into an industrial nation ... an agricultural nation," Bashir told the crowd of mostly young soccer supporters, speaking in a local dialect and accompanied by his wife.
Introducing Bashir, a Sudanese singer sang odes insulting the International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who last year won an ICC arrest warrant against Bashir for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sudan's Darfur region.
"Where is the ethnic cleansing? Where is the genocide?" Bashir asked, adding he would make peace in Sudan's west after seven years of rebellion with anyone who was willing to sign.
The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died in Darfur's crisis since mostly non-Arab rebels took up arms in early 2003, accusing central government of neglecting the region. Bashir has avoided visiting any country which might extradite him to the ICC in The Hague.
The presidential and legislative elections, due to be held in April, have already been delayed several times. But if all goes to plan, they will be the oil-producing country's first full, multi-party vote in almost quarter of a century.
There was an effectively single-party ballot in 1996 and most opposition parties boycotted elections in 2000.
Sudan's opposition complains the elections cannot be free and fair due to the Darfur conflict, widespread electoral fraud and the NCP's control of state resources and media.
But critics say the opposition, some of whom have left the door open to a boycott, are weak and unprepared for the vote.
"No one forced these elections on us," Bashir told thousands of young supporters in an hour-long speech. "We want fair elections, we want clean elections."
BROTHERS IN THE SOUTH
The elections were promised in a 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended more than two decades of civil war between north and south Sudan. They will precede a referendum in the south of the country on independence to be held in January 2011.
Bashir said that while he would work for unity, he would also respect any vote for secession, a result most Sudan analysts foresee. "If our brothers in the south...decide on independence, we will be their closest neighbors and...we will stand by their side," Bashir said.
At the al-Hilal stadium, Bashir spoke of the devastated economy his government inherited when it took power in a bloodless coup in 1989. Petrol was rationed, the army had no weapons or ammunition, people could not find bread to eat and education was a luxury of the rich, he said.
"Today in every city there is a university or higher education institute. Today in every village in Sudan there is a university graduate," Bashir said. If the Sudanese people did not choose the NCP, "we'll salute you and withdraw," he added.
Focusing on development goals in the impoverished state afflicted by decades of civil war, he promised a road and rail network connecting all parts of Africa's largest country, education for all children over six and an industrial program of self-sufficiency.
Bashir's down to earth speeches, with jokes suitable for his target audience, are well received throughout the country. He will compete with 11 other candidates for the presidency.