Sudan's al-Bashir set to extend 25-year reign despite war crimes charges, insurgencies

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Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, the world's only sitting leader wanted on genocide charges, is expected to win a landslide victory in elections this week, extending a 25-year reign in which the country has endured multiple insurgencies and the secession of the oil-rich south.

Despite Sudan's seemingly perpetual unrest, al-Bashir survived the 2011 Arab Spring. His ruling party dominates the parliament and local councils, and the massive security apparatus has left the once-vibrant opposition a husk of its former self.

Al-Bashir has ruled the country since taking power in a 1989 coup, but billboards across Khartoum showing him in traditional robes or military fatigues proclaim: "We lead reform, we continue the renaissance."

The unrest sweeping the region may have convinced many Sudanese that al-Bashir's continued rule is preferable to the even greater chaos that could follow his departure.

"The states' collapse and the fall of the army in several Arab countries in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings made people think twice before moving against al-Bashir and calling for his immediate departure," said rights lawyer Nabil Adeeb. "For many, Sudan could turn into a new Somalia."

Nearly 13 million people are registered to vote for president and the 450-member legislative council starting Monday. Some 11,000 polling centers will be open through Wednesday, and results are expected on April 27.

The vote is being greeted with widespread apathy, in part because the 15 candidates allowed to compete with al-Bashir are virtually unknown to the public. The government is nevertheless hoping for a wide turnout, and many expect a repeat of the vote-rigging that took place during the first multi-candidate election in 2010, when al-Bashir won with 68 percent.

"There is one candidate and the rest are extras," said Ahmed Mazamel, sitting with friends in a downtown Khartoum coffee shop. "Dictatorships need fake elections to stay in power longer."

"I have nothing to do with these elections. There is no use," Azzam Salah, from Port Sudan state, said. "I can recognize only one face among the 16 running -- the current president."

And yet the vote is not entirely meaningless, at least for al-Bashir himself, and religious authorities have instructed Muslim clerics to encourage people to vote.

As long as he remains in office, al-Bashir will not be sent to the International Criminal Court on charges of orchestrating genocide during the Darfur conflict, which left 300,000 people dead and 2 million displaced.

The president also hopes to preserve a veneer of legitimacy as he tries to improve relations with countries that can help bail Sudan out economically. Sudan recently joined the Saudi-led coalition bombing the Houthi rebels in Yemen, perhaps hoping for aid from the petroleum-rich Gulf.

The 2011 secession of South Sudan, which ended Africa's longest-running civil war, deprived Khartoum of a third of its territory and population, and nearly 80 percent of its oil revenues. Smaller armed conflicts are currently raging in the country's east, west and south.

The economic losses forced al-Bashir to embark on austerity measures in 2013 that sparked the largest anti-government demonstrations of his rule. As protests erupted in several cities, including affluent parts of Khartoum, the security forces clamped down, killing some 200 people and arresting hundreds more.

Opposition candidates might have hoped to translate that frustration into electoral gains and even challenge al-Bashir, but a raft of new laws and a heavy-handed crackdown have made that virtually impossible.

In January, al-Bashir's National Congress Party — which holds 90 percent of parliamentary seats, passed 18 constitutional amendments that expanded his presidential powers, including the appointment of governors and judges. It also granted sweeping powers to an intelligence agency, placing it on par with the army and police.

The opposition organized a boycott campaign in response, but has struggled to get the message out. Two leading opposition figures were jailed in January on terror-related charges for orchestrating the campaign, and were only released last week.

Amnesty International said last month that 15 newspapers have had editions confiscated since January, and that security agencies have detained and interrogated journalists while threatening to shutter non-governmental organizations. One female chief editor faces charges punishable by death.

This week, the European Union said it doubted the vote would produce credible results.

Abdullah al-Aqib, a candidate from a party close to the government who is running for parliament in Khartoum, said the opposition's failure to compete was its own fault. The opposition parties are "far away from the masses," he said, adding that participation in the election was the only way to bring about change.

But activist Ihsan Fouqairi said the election will be met with "a deep state of desperation."

"Al-Bashir will remain in power no matter what, and for the people, elections are useless," she said.