Elections on the Horizon? South Sudan prepares for end of the transition phase

Since its independence in 2011, South Sudan has never seen national elections. Initially planned for May 2015 despite the outbreak of the civil war one and a half years earlier, presidential, parliamentary and state level elections were never held in the new country. The current political configuration relies on quota negotiated in the revitalized peace agreement from 2018. Facing severe challenges and delays, the already extended transitional period provided by the agreement got extended to February 2024 by a roadmap agreed between all peace agreement signatories, with elections now scheduled for December 2024.

Several tasks have been agreed to be completed before elections could be held. The roadmap foresees not only the unification of the armies of the signatories and their graduation as ‘necessary unified forces’, but also the return of all refugees, the holding of a census, the implementation of a number of transitional justice institutions and the adoption of a final constitution as preconditions. It becomes increasingly obvious that there is no realistic way to complete all these tasks by December 2024 while engaging in concrete preparations for elections, which represents a formidable task in itself.

But what are indispensable, and what are perhaps less critical tasks? A number of workshops organised by the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) in Nairobi, Kampala and Juba with influential South Sudanese stakeholders from politics, academia and civil society have discussed these questions and contemplated possible useful interventions to help support and improve the preparatory efforts.

When discussing preconditions for elections, political, legal and practical aspects have to be considered, all coming together in the question if elections will be seen as legitimate by the electorate. Choices are certainly not easy. According to the peace agreement, all of these preconditions need to be implemented. However, refugee return or even conducting a full census do not appear realistic given the current conditions on the ground.

Especially the latter is challenging. While logistical and financial challenges suggest that is practically not possible to hold a census before elections, recent survey data from the fourth wave of the South Sudan public perception survey has revealed that over 80% of the respondents see a census as a necessary prerequisite for elections to become credible. While election experts see alternative pathways at a technical level, such as a rigorous voter registration, not conducting a census will require proactive and smart political communication towards the public if elections should still appear as credible and legitimate.

Other important elements, as discussed in the first FES workshop outcome report, ‘how (not) to hold elections in South Sudan’, are questions of registering political parties, the electoral system, but also hands-on issues such as electoral security and electoral dispute resolution. Another important task is the procurement of all material necessary to conduct elections, such as ballot boxes, which has to start very soon to be ready for the planned election date.

Some issues remain with the electoral amendment act, which aims to regulate all cornerstones and ground rules, and is currently tabled in the transitional parliament. While the system for the presidential and gubernatorial elections appears reasonably clear, the election procedure for the National Legislative Assembly laid out at current holds several pitfalls. Indeed, the voting system for the parliament appears complex. Half of the 250 seats will be assigned through a ‘first-past-the-post’-system, the other half in proportional representation, where four different party lists (one general, and one each for women, youth and disabled). Together with presidential, state and county level elections voters could end up with up to twelve ballot sheets, not an easy task for voters in a country that has not yet seen national elections.

Three additional major challenges require attention. First, the ‘first-past-the-post’-process requires the creation of 125 political constituencies in which parliamentarians are to be elected. This number deviates from the number of counties, which is 79. The current understanding – according to the election amendment act – is that new constituencies are to be discussed and created. Apart from the difficulty for voters to understand that they vote for county commissioners and parliamentarians in different territorial entities, the creation of these constituencies promises to be a challenging task: gerrymandering, the creation of political constituencies favouring ruling parties, is a common process even in established democracies, hence, it will be challenging to prevent severe political tensions when these are established in South Sudan. Working with existing county boundaries could provide a potential solution.

Second, the voter registration process needs to include the substantial refugee population, especially in Uganda and Kenya, and the now returning refugees from Sudan. This holds logistical challenges for the understaffed embassies in these countries, which are presently not in a position to register hundreds of thousands of voters and organise an appropriate election process. There are technical challenges as well: refugees – and internally displaced people– are likely to register in the political constituencies of their families, localities some of them may never have visited. Such process could mean that a majority of voters in a constituency are not even voting within this constituency but from outside. These external voters make it not only difficult for candidates to campaign effectively but may also cast doubt on election results – comparable to postal voting processes in other countries, which often fuel debates about the credibility of elections. Since a repatriation of all refugees as foreseen by the peace agreement is totally unrealistic, pragmatic solutions to these challenges are required.

Finally, electoral security is a major issue to guarantee not only a free but also a fair election. The establishment of a unified high command and the completion of the graduation process of the ‘necessary unified forces’ are elements that do not only appear as hard requirements from an observer’s point of view but are also demanded for by a vast majority of South Sudanese. Smart deployment plans, thorough support by the UN peacekeeping mission UNMISS, and effective early warning systems are required to prevent violent tensions and voter intimidation. As with the other challenges, concrete planning needs to start soon.

While the challenges are vast, there is one decisively important factor that must not be forgotten. South Sudanese, overwhelmingly, want to vote, they want to vote soon and even under the severe risk of election-related violence. In many complex transitions, the international community has pushed for elections too early in the process, putting the whole transition process at risk. The strong public support for elections, however, suggests that the situation in South Sudan is different. Yet, the above-mentioned workshops clearly revealed that thorough political communication about what elections can and cannot do, and a wide public debate about what they require to be credible, are urgently needed. Only credible elections will enable South Sudan to make progress in its protracted transition.




Dr Jan Pospisil is Associate Professor (Research) at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. Learn more about Jan