In the turbulent political landscape of South Sudan, where stable governance has been elusive since gaining independence in 2011, the country is currently at a key crossroads in its political history. Just three years removed from the end of the Civil War, preparations for the long-awaited 2024 elections have prompted a series of electoral and legislative reforms aimed at paving the way for a more stable and representative government. However, these reforms have not come without controversy, particularly concerning a key amendment to the National Elections Act which sparked intense debate and an opposition legislative walkout. In this article, we look at the proposed electoral reforms, dissect the opposition’s discontent, and provide some contextual backdrop needed to understand these developments in the South Sudanese political environment.
Understanding this episode of political change requires broader context on South Sudan’s political landscape. Since gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan has been plagued by internal conflict, power struggles, and governance challenges. The country’s political history has been marked by violence and instability, including a devastating civil war that lasted from 2013 to 2020.
The 2020 peace agreement that ended the Civil War also established a unity government, including a Transitional National Legislative Assembly composed of members from the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (mainly referred to as the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Government or SPLM-IG), main opposition Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO), and smaller opposition South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA). However, the continued presence of multiple armed militias, deep ethnic tensions, a refugee crisis, and food insecurity continue to threaten the fragile peace amidst preparations for the nation’s very first elections.
In this context, the electoral and legislative reforms are seen as a critical component of South Sudan’s journey toward democratic governance. However, protests from SPLM-IO against the proposal underscores the deep-rooted mistrust within national politics. The risk of political tensions escalating in the lead-up to the 2024 elections cannot be overstated.
The Transitional National Legislative Assembly passed the aforementioned amendment to the National Elections Act 2012 on 18 September 2023. President Salva Kiir (SPLM-IG) signed the legislation into law about a week later. The amendment, establishing the electoral systems to be employed in the 2024 legislative elections, introduces a mixed system:
Opposition Backlash and Implications
While the majority of reforms have wide support across political and social actors, one provision encountered vehement opposition. The core contention revolves around the 5% of MPs to be appointed by the president, which the SPLM-IO claims is undemocratic and violates the 2020 peace agreement.
The opposition’s concerns are twofold:
- The appointment of MPs by the president raises fears of executive overreach, potentially undermining the separation of powers and the principle of checks and balances. SPLM-IO Deputy Chairperson Nathaniel Oyet called the appointee proposal “undemocratic, unfair, and not credible” and contended that it was forced through the legislature by the SPLM-IG. Additionally, several other opposition groups including the SSOA also oppose the provision on democratic grounds. In response, minister Onyoti Adigo Nyikec (SPLM-IG) argued the appointment slots would help guarantee representation for faith-based organizations, persons with disabilities, trade unionists, youth, and other unique groups.
- The passage threatens to disrupt the delicate peace agreement, as the SPLM-IO sees this move as “contrary to the provision of the negotiated terms“. There have been wider concerns that the peace agreement could crumble and violence return if the political process is rejected; President Kiir blames the opposition for threatening the peace agreement while First Vice-President Riek Machar (SPLM-IO) claims Kiir has repeatedly breached the agreement.
The opposition walkout — the second in two months, after an earlier protest during the budget process in August — underscores the fragile situation; it is not merely a parliamentary maneuver but a reflection of the deep-seated mistrust between the rival factions. In the wake of the bill signing, the SPLM-IO reiterated its rejection of the law and refused to commit to participating in the election. These political circumstances, in addition to extremely slow security sector integration and militia disarmament, also raises the specter of potential political unrest and instability in the run-up to the 2024 elections.