Sudanese go to polls boycotted by opposition

The government declared polling day a public holiday

KHARTOUM - Sudanese were voting Monday in elections boycotted by the mainstream opposition that are expected to extend the quarter-century rule of President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted on war crimes charges.
With 15 little-known candidates running against him, 71-year-old Bashir faces no real competition in the vote, which has already been criticised by the international community.
Voters will also elect national and state lawmakers in the three-day poll, with Bashir's ruling National Congress Party (NCP) expected to dominate.
The streets of the capital were quiet as the vote started, after the government declared polling day a public holiday.
At a polling station in Khartoum's Al-Daim area, representatives of the candidates had set up stalls outside, as electoral volunteers and observers waited inside.
A small number of people arrived early to vote at Al-Daim.
"I came here because the elections are the right to choose who governs me," said 25-year-old Abdallah Mohammed Ali.
But on the eve of polling day, many in Khartoum had been less enthusiastic.
"Everyone knows the result of this election," said Mutawakil Babikir, a 43-year-old shopkeeper.
The elections are the second contested ballots since Bashir seized power in 1989.
Bashir toppled a democratically elected government in an Islamist-backed coup and is Sudan's longest-serving leader since independence.
He won a 2010 presidential election that was marred by an opposition boycott and criticised for failing to meet international standards.
Under his rule Sudan's economy has faltered, suffering badly from South Sudan's 2011 secession, which saw it lose nearly three-quarters of its oil resources.
Conflict has plagued South Kordofan and Blue Nile states since 2011, and the Darfur region since 2003.
Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court in 2009 for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur, and the following year for genocide.
Some 300,000 people have been killed in fighting in the western region, the United Nations says.
Rebels have said they will disrupt the elections across the three war-torn areas.
Officials say voting will not take place in one district of Darfur and seven in South Kordofan, but will go ahead at 7,100 polling stations nationwide.
- No 'credible' result -
The European Union has already said the elections cannot produce a "credible" result because Bashir's NCP snubbed a meeting with the opposition to organise a national dialogue last month.
Norway, the United States and Britain warned "an environment conducive to participatory and credible elections does not exist".
Khartoum released two leading political detainees on Thursday, a move their lawyer said was aimed at easing international pressure before the vote.
Amin Makki Madani and Farouk Abu Issa were arrested in December for signing an agreement aimed at uniting opposition to Bashir.
Human rights groups have accused security services of stifling dissent in the run-up to the elections.
Police in the eastern city of Port Sudan broke up a small student demonstration against the elections on Sunday, witnesses said.
Residents of the Kalma displaced persons' camp in South Darfur held a peaceful protest against the vote at the headquarters of the peacekeeping force that provides their security.
The government has dismissed such criticism, with presidential assistant Ibrahim Ghandour saying the elections are "historic".
Forty-four parties are standing for the state and national parliaments in the country of nearly 38 million people, the National Electoral Commission (NEC) said.
The voting is being monitored by 15 international organisations, including the Arab League, the African Union and east African bloc IGAD, according to the NEC.
The presidential election could theoretically go to a second round if no candidate wins a majority although Bashir is expected to win comfortably. The results are expected in late April.