KHARTOUM, Sudan – Sudanese voted Sunday in the impoverished country's first multiparty elections in a quarter century, which will determine whether President Omar al-Bashir wins another term despite his indictment on charges of war crimes in Darfur.
The vote is supposed to bring a democratically elected government, prepare the ground for a vital referendum on South Sudan independence and begin healing the wounds of the Darfur conflict. But major opposition parties boycotted it, claiming it was unfair.
In addition to the president, the country was electing a national parliament, local governors and parliaments and the president of the semiautonomous government of South Sudan.
The elections, which run through Tuesday, are supposed to be an essential step in a 2005 peace plan that ended two decades of civil war between the mostly Arab and Muslim north and rebels in the Christian-animist south. The conflict claimed some 2 million lives.
Sudanese hoped the election would begin a process of healing in a country ripped apart by that war and the separate, seven-year conflict in the western Darfur region, which left an estimated 300,000 people dead and millions displaced since 2003.
Al-Bashir is expected to win easily after two major parties, including the southerners, decided to pull out fully or partially.
The opposition accused the National Election Commission of bias in favor of the government. They also accused the ruling party of using state resources in the campaign and said the number of polling stations nationwide was cut in half from 20,000, making it harder for those in remote villages to vote. They called for a delay, but the government went ahead anyway.
"This is the first time that the party that carried out a coup organizes elections," said Sarah Nugdallah, the head of the political bureau of the Umma party, a major northern opposition group that is boycotting. Al-Bashir came to power in a 1989 coup.
In the capital, Khartoum, early turnout was light. Trucks loaded with uniformed security forces were deployed around the capital and police issued stern warnings that no disturbances will be tolerated.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, whose team of monitors was the largest among the more than 800 international observers, said he expected a peaceful election.
"I think (opposition parties) want to see a peaceful transition and peace in this country, so I don't think there is any party that is threatening at all any disturbance or violence or intimidation of voters," Carter told reporters in Khartoum.
Amal Saleh, a housewife in her 30s voting in Khartoum, said she expects al-Bashir's party to win.
"I am not a ruling party member, but I think it will win," she said. "We know them better than others."
There are 12 candidates for president, including al-Bashir, listed on the ballot, but four of those challengers have said they are boycotting.
Despite the boycotts, more than 14,000 candidates from 73 different parties were competing. Many of Sudan's 16 million registered voters, especially in the south, had never taken part in multiparty elections before.
"I have never voted in my life. This is my first time to vote and it is a good feeling that Sudan is going back to democracy," South Sudan's President Salva Kiir said after casting his vote in a polling station in the southern capital of Juba. Kiir is running unopposed for re-election as South Sudan president.
"I hope that it would be the foundation for future democracy in our country so that power is transferred from person to person by peaceful means," he said.
Men overwhelmingly outnumbered women at most polling stations in the south. But the first hours of voting coincided with church services that many of the Christians in the south attend. Many in Juba said they planned to vote Monday or Tuesday.
Poll workers said the many illiterate voters were slowing down the process, because they couldn't find their names on voter rolls by themselves. Around 40 percent of Sudanese are illiterate, according to UNICEF.
A 26-year-old voter, Odama Stephen Moro Dominic, said he hoped the election would lead to better schools and roads.
In Darfur, anti-government rebels called for a boycott of the election because the western region is under a state of emergency and sporadic fighting continues.
Since 2003, the vast arid region has been the scene of a bloody conflict between the Arab-led government in Khartoum and ethnic African rebels.
Straziuso reported from Juba, Sudan. Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo.