JUBA, Sudan – JUBA, Sudan (AP) — The election posters and slogan-filled T-shirts blanketing this town underscore a new excitement in southern Sudan, which will cast ballots in a national election for the first time in more than two decades, when a three-day vote begins Sunday.
Despite the first-in-a-generation election, though, most people are already looking past the weekend ballot to a vote in January considered far more significant: a referendum on independence that could signal the birth of a new African nation, if final negotiations with Khartoum over oil rights and the location of the border are worked out peacefully.
"Southerners are going to vote for independence. We cannot say if they (Khartoum) will accept it," said Peter Yien, a 28-year-old who lives in Akobo, a southeastern town on the border with Ethiopia that is suffering a severe food shortage because of tribal conflict and a lack of rain.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters Friday that the United States believes the elections are an important step in peace efforts and wants them conducted so they "reflect the will of the Sudanese people."
He said, however, that the U.S. won't hesitate to speak out if the elections appear to be unfair. President Barack Obama's special envoy to Sudan, Scott Gration, has been meeting with officials in southern Sudan and in Khartoum, Crowley said.
The roots of a young democracy have taken place this election cycle, at least in the south's capital of Juba, which has seen candidate rallies, voter education drives and political speeches for the first time in years. Daniel Deng, the founder of the Deng Foundation, a voter education group, held a rally this week in Juba to raise voter awareness.
"I will be voting for the first time, and I don't think my mom or dad has ever voted in their lives. We have lived in this country like aliens, forgotten. Now we have a chance to be part of something," Deng said, before quickly adding that the independence vote next year was more important: "Let's get it out of the way and then move forward to the referendum."
Salva Kiir Mayardit, the south's president and Sudan's first vice president, held a final rally in Juba under a still-fiery evening sun Thursday to muted cheers from about 1,000 people. Earlier in the day he said the south was running the "final lap of our journey toward the referendum."
"My key message throughout the campaigns has been the maintenance of peace and stability throughout the country," Mayardit told a news conference. "Since the signing of the CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) the lives of our people have changed tremendously from worse to better, and no amount of intimidation can drag us back to war."
The CPA, a U.S.-backed peace treaty, ended the north-south war in 2005, setting in motion both the elections and the referendum. The last time the south voted in national elections was 1986. The balloting is to elect a president, national parliament and provincial parliaments and governors.
The south's dominant party, the Sudan People's Liberation Movement, or SPLM, is not running a candidate against Sudan President Omar al-Bashir. Some candidates in the SPLM's northern wing are boycotting the election, but candidates in the south are proceeding. Most here agree that the south is only trying to successfully get through the election and move on to the referendum.
"The language I tend to use in this regard is that elections are the end game in the north and the referendum is the end game in the south," said Zach Vertin, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.
"That's not to say there isn't any interest in the election. It's also important within the south. You can see the beginning of democracy here. Southerners and a lot of the parties deserve credit for engaging in the democratic process."
The oil-rich south is a mainly Christian and animist region. The predominantly Muslim north has ruled for decades, and 50 years of civil war between north and south killed 2 million people. The separate conflict in Darfur erupted in 2003, when ethnic African tribes rose up complaining of discrimination by the Arab-led government in Khartoum.
A U.N. report on the outlook for 2010 said that a worst-case scenario for the country would see north-south clashes ignite along the border, triggering inter-tribal conflict. The U.N. report also predicts severe food shortages this year that could affect the referendum. More than 4 million people in southern Sudan will need food aid this year.
The newly born democratic process in Juba has included candidate forums, which attracted a couple hundred people earlier this week. The president has been flying around southern Sudan advertising his platform, which includes giving more rights and educational opportunities to women. Candidate posters are plastered over telephone poles and store fronts.
But the election in the whole of Sudan is beset with problems. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said this week that signs on the ground were "very disturbing," and said that much was awry with the electoral process. Her comments came after former Sudanese Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi's Umma party announced it will boycott the election. Several of Sudan's biggest opposition parties have withdrawn from the race.
A report from the International Crisis Group last month said Sudan's election would suffer from electoral fraud, including ballot stuffing and voter registration gerrymandering. The report also predicted return to conflict between the north and the south if the vote on independence is not held next year.
Friends standing alongside Yien in the eastern town of Akobo agreed that was possible.
"War? No, not war. We will talk," said Peter Toi, 28.
"We will see," Nyak Pan Deng, 33, quickly interjected. "No one can say war or no war now."