November 1, 2009 / 5:27 PM / 10 years ago

Sudanese register for first free vote in 24 years

By Opheera McDoom

KHARTOUM, Nov 1 (Reuters) - Sudanese began registering on Sunday for the country’s first multi-party elections in 24 years, but opposition parties threatened to boycott the April poll unless democratic reforms are passed.

U.S. envoy Scott Gration, on his first visit since Washington unveiled a new policy of engagement with Sudan last month, said time was running short and urged Sudan’s political parties to resolve their differences ahead of the key vote.

Opposition parties and Sudan junior government partner, the former rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), have threatened to boycott the election unless new laws ensuring democratic transformation are passed, including reforming the powerful intelligence services.

"We need to get some solutions," Gration said in Juba, south Sudan. "We urge you to register to vote, to express your will, to do this in peace and for peace."

Opposition parties said they were carefully monitoring the registration on Sunday, though they said many people had no idea the electoral process had started or where the centres were.

"The National Elections Commission (NEC) has made no effort to tell the people that it is time to register," said one Communist Party delegate.

An average of about 150 people had registered in each of six Khartoum centres visited by Reuters on Sunday.

Election officers said they had asked for larger posters to advertise registration so people would know where to come.

"There has been a very active campaign ... there was information on the radio, TV and newspapers," NEC Secretary-General Jalal Mohamed Ahmed told Reuters.

Sudan’s mobile providers sent subscribers a message that registration was beginning.

And indeed some Sudanese, bussed in by their political parties or nipping out on their lunch break, did get the message and came to collect their piece of white paper which will allow them to vote in April.

But while awareness in Khartoum was limited, outside the capital there was confusion.

In south Sudan’s capital Juba, centres opened late and officials worried tribal violence which has displaced thousands would mean many would not be able to register.

"The law does not allow them to register in one place and vote in another," said Mac Maika, a south Sudan elections official.

Early on Sunday, 10 people were killed in violence near Malakal town, central Sudan, the southern army said.

Sudan’s NEC will also have to register more than 2 million Darfuris forced into miserable camps in Sudan’s west after a rebellion in 2003 and negotiate access to areas controlled by hostile rebel groups.

"It’s not going to be easy.. but I am cautiously optimistic," said voter Mohamed Osman. (Additional reporting by Skye Wheeler in Juba)

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