The people of South Sudan have not exercised the right to choose their leaders since the referendum that secured independence from Sudan in 2011. Instead, they have suffered through cycles of violent conflict that have prevented the democratic transfer of power.
South Sudan descended into violent conflict less than three years after independence. It signed its first peace agreement in 2015. This collapsed in less than a year and was followed by another wave of violence. The 2015 peace agreement was resuscitated in 2018 with hope it would lead to a newly elected government in February 2023.
After failing to fully implement the 2018 revitalised peace agreement, the signatories extended its term for 24 months to allow for better preparation for elections in December 2024. The elections, however, may be extended again.
I have studied constitution-making, security governance and post-conflict transitions. I also served as a minister in the Government of Southern Sudan and the Sudan National Government of Unity in 2005. In my view, postponing polls has become a currency in South Sudan, making a democratic transition through elections an elusive quest. However, it’s possible to hold elections if there is political will.
A recent public opinion survey showed that the majority of South Sudanese are opposed to any further delays to elections. Church leaders and civil society organisations have also called for elections. These sentiments indicate that the South Sudanese are tired of a status quo where the ruling elite clings to political power through endless power-sharing arrangements rather than through the ballot.
Three key things are needed for a credible poll:
- electoral laws to guide the process
- voter registration and constituency boundaries
- a safe environment to vote in.
Providing what’s needed
There are major political and logistical challenges in the way of an election in South Sudan. Resolving them will require hard choices and difficult trade-offs.
Electoral laws: one of the big issues in the political reforms process is whether the elections will be conducted under a permanent constitution – which is still being drafted – or the current constitution. A permanent constitution is one of the prerequisites for the conduct of election under the 2018 peace deal. However, tying a permanent constitution to the conduct of elections was unrealistic. Permanent constitution-making takes time. It requires the effective participation of citizens, and the return of internally displaced persons and refugees to their home areas.
Also, the permanent constitution should be ratified by an elected parliament. Not the current handpicked 650 members of the national legislature who are part of South Sudan’s elite power-sharing arrangements.
Voter registration: another necessary condition for the conduct of elections is a population census. This is important for voter registration and the drawing of constituency boundaries. However, it would be ideal to conduct such a census when there is relative stability, and displaced persons and refugees can return to their homelands.
A population census will take time, though. So how can South Sudan register voters and draw boundaries without one? Political elites need to make the strategic decision to either use the 2010 constituency boundaries, population estimates or voter registration data. Given rapid demographic shifts – 40% of the country’s population has been forcefully displaced – projections based on the 2008 census could be used to reflect these changes.
The National Bureau of Statistics and other research centres, such as the public policy think-tank Sudd Institute, could objectively make population projections. Combined, these data sets can provide reasonable estimates for voter registration and drawing boundaries for constituencies.
Security, and political and civic space: violent conflict still plagues South Sudan. Should elections be held when there is greater security? Or be organised under the current conditions in the hope that they will produce a legitimate government that promotes peace? A public perceptions survey found that despite the fear of violence, the majority of South Sudanese want elections. Creating a minimum safe and secure environment, which includes political and civic space for elections, is within the reach of political elites. Especially with the unification and deployment of security forces.
What’s going right
South Sudan has put in motion two major laws that could help conduct elections.
The first is the progressive National Elections Bill. It proposes a mixed system that allows geographical representation, as well as special parliamentary quota seats for political parties and marginalised groups, such as women, persons with disabilities and the youth. This is aimed at ensuring inclusivity. It also reduces the risk of a single party holding a monopoly of power.
The elections bill has the potential to achieve political stability that rests on the distribution of power and resources to constituencies, as in the case of Kenya.
The second law is the newly amended Political Parties Act. Elections are only as credible as the parties that contest them. The amended law provides mechanisms for regulating political parties. It aims to ensure internal democratic governance and accountability in party constitutions. However, its implementation remains a challenge. For instance, the Political Parties Council hasn’t been formed, affecting the registration of political parties.
Most of South Sudan’s political parties are at the embryonic stage with limited or no political experience and resources. Investing in building their institutional capacities and governance will be as urgent as funding the elections.
South Sudan is at a crossroad. Its ruling elites have to decide between continuing on the endless power-sharing path or heed to the demands of the people and embrace elections for state legitimacy and democratic transition.
The latter provides citizens with hope of a better South Sudan governed by elected leaders. Yet, political elites are becoming increasingly calculating and transactional in meeting the minimum conditions for holding elections.
Providing funding for the elections, and related institutions and activities will test political commitment to the poll. The 2023-2024 budget – expected to be an elections budget – failed to allocate resources for the poll.
The challenges facing the 2024 elections can be surmounted by collective political will. This is currently in short supply.
Luka Kuol, Adjunct Professor, University of Juba