KHARTOUM (Reuters) - Sudanese voters headed to the polls in sparse numbers on Monday at the start of a three-day election boycotted by the main opposition parties, with President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on course to extend his quarter century in power.
The presidential and parliamentary elections are the first since Sudan saw its south secede in 2011, losing a third of its land and nearly all of its oil production.
Bashir has cast himself as a guarantor of stability as his security forces tackle insurgencies in the western territory of Darfur and along the border with South Sudan. He has warned against a change in government while the wider region is embroiled in violence from Libya to Yemen.
His campaign speeches have also addressed improving the economy, in which inflation and unemployment remain high.
“The elections are better than what is happening elsewhere in the region. Look at the death and killing. Thank God we have avoided that,” said local government official Nadia Ahmed, 55, voting in the capital.
Those boycotting the vote say a clamp down on the opposition and civil society has created an impossible environment to compete against Bashir, who has ruled since a 1989 Islamist and army-backed coup.
The boycott means voters are left to choose between Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) and a handful of relatively new groups. Government critics say these form a token opposition that does not differ from the NCP on core issues.
The European Union, which observed the more widely contested election in 2010, criticized the political environment ahead of the polls.
Sami Abdullah, an official in the Democratic Unionist Party, which is taking part, saw little hope for Bashir’s opponents. Initial results are expected in the days after the polls shut.
“President Bashir is going to win despite the fact that many people who do not agree with it. He is the only candidate who has an opportunity to win,” he said.
He was speaking at a polling station in Khartoum where up to two dozen people were waiting to vote. Of several polling stations visited by Reuters in the capital, it was the only one with any significant activity.
Bashir voted close to his residential compound early on Monday, encircled by heavy security. He waved to supporters who shouted “God is greatest” as he cast his ballot.
“We’ve seen no posters for anyone besides Bashir. We don’t even know who the rest are,” said NCP supporter Abdelaziz al-Hasan, 72, at a polling station in the capital where there were only two other voters.
“Why vote for someone new and weak when this government is going to fix relations with Saudi, bring some Gulf money in?”
In a move that could unlock investment, Sudan has said it will join a Saudi-led military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Analysts say this was aimed at showing Gulf powers Khartoum is a reliable partner in return for financial support. Sudan says its role in Yemen is only intended to protect Saudi Arabia’s holy sites.
Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Alison Williams