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South Sudan: the dangers within

Nicholas van Praag's picture

 

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    Rational exuberance? Photo: RRS

With a large majority in favor of independence in South Sudan, according to preliminary results from the independent poll body in Juba, the threat of conflict with the North is receding. The main challenges the country faces going forward are likely to come from within.

As we have seen, from Timor-Leste to Liberia, it takes time, strong national leadership and appropriate international support to escape the kind of violent conflict South Sudan has known for more than half of the past 60 years.

We also know there are many false dawns. Fragile states are wracked by repeated cycles of violence that come in a dizzying array of forms—with civil war often coexisting with criminal or gang-related violence.

How to stop these cycles of violent conflict is the focus of the 2011 WDR. Its central thesis is that resilient institutions are the best available antidote to the economic, political and security stress factors that overwhelm fragile states and trap them in repetitive violence.

But before you can start bolstering institutions with any likelihood of success, you need to win public confidence. In most places this means instilling a sense that things will change for the better.

That’s hard when hopes have been dashed many times over. Finding the right narrative and taking actions that will persuade people to suspend their disbelief is a huge challenge for leaders trying to prevent further violence.

The curse of treasure in fragile states

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    Bless them.   Photo source Wikipedia.

As people return from the holiday break in early January, the citizens of south Sudan will be voting in a long-awaited referendum.  Polls suggest there will be a big majority in favor of southern independence. Boosting people’s hopes for the new state are its oil reserves worth some $2 billion a year.

Sorting out how the North and South will divvy up the benefits of oil is not clear.  While most of the oil is in the South, the export and refining infrastructure is in the North. Revenues are currently shared roughly 50-50 but there is no agreement yet over the fate of Abyei, a significant oil producing region on the North/South border.

Still, the prospect of oil revenues is central to southern thinking about financing its way to a better future. Assuming the problems with the north are sorted out, are they right to see their natural resource endowment as the basis for future prosperity?

To vote or not to vote

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A vote too soon?    Photo © Corbis

The wisdom of elections in fragile places is questioned by those who fear they will exacerbate tensions and provoke the kind of violence we saw in Côte d’Ivoire and Haiti last week.  This poses a big question: whether to plough ahead regardless or to hold-off on elections until conditions are propitious.

While some conflict experts argue it would be better to wait, many citizens are keen to vote. It’s humbling to see the determination of people in fragile countries who put up with threats to their safety and long lines at polling booths, as well as fraud and intimidation.

Is this another example of hope triumphing over experience?  Perhaps, but it also demonstrates people’s desire to have their voices heard and to influence the course of their lives. So we need to think hard before postponing plebiscites.

Electoral politics are always polarizing, no matter where.  I remember watching CNN night after night in my hotel room in Almaty, Kazakhstan during the hanging chad saga that followed the US presidential elections in November 2000.  Even at a distance of 10,000 kilometers, the negative energy was palpable.  After weeks of wrangling, it took US citizens a while to unwind and accept the outcome.