Sudan stands at a political crossroads on the eve of presidential, parliamentary, and local elections to be held in April 2010. Yet with the election date fast approaching, opposition parties and the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) are threatening to boycott over allegations of vote rigging. A last-minute boycott would throw both the election and the south’s referendum on independence (planned for next January) into a dangerous state of uncertainty.

It is more likely than not, however, that the SPLM will back off the boycott threat, as this move could undermine its core interest in holding the independence referendum on time next January. If so, the citizens of Africa’s largest nation will head to the polls on April 11-13 for the first time in decades. While President Omar al-Bashir will likely retain power in the end, it may well take a second-round run-off vote to win the outright majority required.  For all of Sudan’s democratic shortcomings, this is not likely to be an Equatorial Guinea-style election where 98.5 percent of the electorate goes with the incumbent and everyone knows the results months in advance.  The stakes are high and there might well be surprises.

Yet in Juba, the southern capital, the national election is practically a non-event, seen as merely a formality on the road to the January 2011 referendum on southern independence.  That is the vote that counts, as far as the southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) and its constituents are concerned.  The national election is simply a box to be checked in the U.S.-brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the last big-ticket item en route to the referendum.  

The SPLM’s presidential nominee reflects its apathy.  Instead of nominating a true party leader with deep support, it has put forth an energetic but little-known northern Muslim politician named Yasir Arman—an inclusive gesture, perhaps, but not a remotely viable candidate. Nevertheless it will be interesting to see whether Arman and a stable of established northern-based opposition candidates attract enough votes to deny President Bashir an outright majority in the first round, despite the apathy in the south and likely voter intimidation elsewhere. 

The southern political elites from the SPLM and smaller parties will not boycott the national elections, but they will focus all of their resources, and political jockeying on those seats that they hope will form the government of an independent southern nation in less than a year. The elections for the southern presidency, governorships, and the Juba-based parliament all matter greatly in this context. Since independence is already an article of faith in Juba, the political logic is clear: Why bother with an election whose operational life-span is less than 10 months when your own, long-cherished nation is about to be born? That is why Salva Kiir, president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan, has set his sights on retaining that post while Yasir Arman has been dispatched to represent the SPLM’s nominal presidential ambitions in Khartoum.

If independence is seen as inevitable in Juba, how is it viewed in Khartoum? Is Bashir’s ruling National Congress Party prepared to live with an independent south, where more than two-thirds of the country’s oil reserves are found? What about the even more nationalistic or Islamist-oriented northern parties that could gain influence post-secession? Many Sudan experts, who have been sounding alarms about this from the moment the CPA was signed back in 2005, believe the answer is a resounding no, setting north and south on a collision course that could unleash a return to war.  Under this school of thought, the National Congress Party will throw up procedural obstacles and other subterfuges to postpone the referendum indefinitely, prompting the SPLM to declare independence unilaterally. A new nation would be born, but under the imminent risk of attack from the north.

Such a scenario, however, is by no means inevitable. There is evidence that Khartoum, and for that matter other key countries in the region such as Egypt, are not only prepared to live (albeit warily) with an independent south, but have come to expect it. The Bashir government has scaled back its rhetoric against independence and senior Egyptian officials have quietly shuttled back and forth to Juba in recent months. The relevant question is no longer whether a new state will be born next year but whether it will live in peace with its neighbor and be a viable independent nation, not a ward of the international community.  

While peace is a precondition for the viability of the new nation, it is no guarantee. Landlocked, poorly governed (to date), resource-rich and prone to conflict,  the world’s 193rd nation (by UN count) would be born with all of the characteristics of the world’s most vulnerable states outlined by Oxford economist Paul Collier. With a government dependent on oil for 98 percent of its revenues and almost no infrastructure outside of Juba, it is already clear that donors will have to foot most of the bills, probably to the tune of billions of dollars annually to help the government stay above water.

That said, a relapse of the civil war in the next year is unlikely despite the exceptionally low level of trust between Khartoum and Juba. The CPA has been bent many times since 2005 but has not broken, showing resilience under pressure. Despite the zero-sum mentality and brinksmanship that has characterized CPA implementation for years, at critical moments both sides have made tough compromises to keep the agreement alive. Both sides have calculated that the benefits of sticking to the agreement, while often painful, outweigh the costs of relapse. The Bashir administration wants to keep its grip on power and to normalize relations with the West if possible; for Juba the prize is and has always been independence. These outcomes are well in sight now and need not be mutually exclusive.

Success will require another round of compromise, however, particularly on oil revenues. Some form of revenue-sharing on oil will need to be maintained to soften the economic blow of southern succession for Khartoum. As it turns out, the geography of oil in Sudan does not lend itself to zero-sum thinking by either side, as the main reserves are south but the pipelines and refineries are in the north. Juba and Khartoum will have to cooperate if either side is to benefit. This reality, along with diplomatic pressures on a southern government that desires international recognition, will facilitate a compromise that keeps some oil revenues flowing to Khartoum (though probably less than the 50 percent cut it currently gets).

These negotiations need to begin in earnest now. They cannot wait until January 2011, the day after the referendum vote. By then, the six month transition to statehood should already be underway, with everything from border demarcation to securing diplomatic recognition on the to-do list, little of which will be easy. Khartoum will need assurance that southern independence will not come at its expense, whether economically or diplomatically. Here the U.S. administration has a critical, albeit politically difficult, role to play by taking concrete measures towards sanctions removal and normalization if the elections are relatively credible and the referendum takes place on schedule. This diplomatic carrot, which has been dangled for years, would give Khartoum further incentive to accept southern independence. 

Even if this relatively peaceful scenario transpires over the next 10 months, it is not at all clear that the newly independent south will be a self-sufficient, viable state. Juba’s natural allies (including the United States, European Union and neighbors in the region such as Kenya and Ethiopia) are all worried that southern Sudan could become Africa’s next basket-case, not to mention an inspiration for separatist movements across the continent, beginning with other regions in Sudan such as Darfur. Competition for scarce resources already pits communities and ethnic groups against one another, leading to casualty figures in the south that outnumbered those in Darfur last year. It may be that by January 2012, the newspaper headlines on Sudan will not be warning of a return to war between north and south, but rather of growing disappointment, ethnic rivalry, and unrest within the south itself.

Philippe de Pontet is a sub-Saharan Africa analyst at Eurasia Group.