I’m quite frustrated with this piece by Jort Hemmer at the SSRC blog today. The article is, to me, an oversimplification, when I think it could be trying to say something more balanced and really pertinent.
Hemmer contrasts the general success of the referendum with an ‘alternative narrative’ of rigging, intimidation and, in his quote from Mareike Schomerus, an “environment of fear” surrounding the mobilisation of the “yes” vote.
Yes, there was rigging – there’s nothing like a good 107% turnout. There was also social pressure, and voting came to automatically mean voting for separation. But Hemmer jumps from explaining about most officials and police behaving well and to an impressive level of professionalism, to making very wide statements about “a large number of centers” where votes were public, non-voters were under pressure, and there was no political debate about unity. I don’t quite see how he gets from what he initially says is a widely well-run poll to a similarly wide atmosphere of intimidation and misadministration.
On a more general level, it’s surely less of a shock that this went better than the 2010 elections because there was a wide interest and importance in keeping this as squeaky clean as possible in order not to have the vote called into question. Practically, the competitiveness of polling stations and wards to get their turnout the highest was probably more likely to be responsible for any hunting for non-voters than a desperate attempt at rigging a definite vote for secession. Before registration, when there was a panic over reaching the 60% turnout, that level of official heavyhandedness was more likely, but the 60% turnout was passed early in the voting week, and then turnout became a competition rather than a political necessity.
Why is security officers’ presence at the counting a bad thing? Can they rig it through ranting? I’m not totally sure you can view this as intimidation, as the votes have already been cast, and as Hemmer says, there were various types of observers present. Isn’t this just abundant enthusiasm – when SSRC are putting “it’s a historical process” on their registration posters, and everyone is talking about being here for the historical moment, there will be overexcitement (potentially leading to unprofessionalism) everywhere – why read extra motives into it, particularly when I can’t work out how a security officer making an impromptu speech at a supervised counting would be anything more serious than irritating?
It’s bizarre to talk about a lack of ‘unity campaigning’ without emphasising the last ten years of negotiation between North and South. This is not an election, nor is it a campaigning event; the referendum could be deemed invalid if there was open campaigning by political parties, and it would be odd to suggest that public discussion of the benefits, problems and repercussions – practical and emotional – of both unity and separation hasn’t been happening for at least a decade.
Hammer definitely sees the relationship between a “state and its citizens” a bit too starkly. Can’t citizens actually agree with their government? Was it really only officials and SPLM/GoSS people ordering people to come out and vote for separation – what about the vast impromptu speeches at polling stations across South Sudan, at schools and universities, by people with no vested government interests or jobs? There are plenty of videos on YouTube with hours and hours of speeches about freedom from the North, self-government and independence. Asking “exactly where in the referendum did the people come in?” is a pretty strange question, considering the huge efforts of South Sudanese all over the world, and particularly in remote, waterlogged areas with limited transport to have their say.
I do see what Hammer is concerned about, but I think you can recognise that South Sudanese people have ‘high expectations’ and do widely aspire to ‘live in a sovereign state’, while being concerned with governmental and social pressure and over-scrutiny. I do have serious concerns about the future of political organisation in Sudan, particularly concerning freedom of expression and opposition in the face of a distinctly paranoid and heavy-handed SPLM. I also recognise that the referendum vote for secession was widely wanted, was generally well-run, and has had its own political debate for decades.