Khartoum, Sudan (PANA) - The Sudanese First Vice President and President of Government of Southern Sudan, Gen. Salva Kiir Mayardit, was the first southerner to vote in the regional capital of Juba Sunday as voting got underway in Sudan's referendum.
Hundreds of thousand of southerners in southern and northern Sudan headed to polling stations on the first day of the referendum, which will decide after five days whether Sudan will remain united or be divided.
In Khartoum, apparently apprehensive southerners were slow in going to the polling stations, which all have a strong police presence to assure them that they would not be harassed or intimidated.
''We have toured a number of centres and everything is going well, and if things continue this way I think we will see a smooth referendum,'' said the official spokesperson for the Southern Sudan Referendum Commission (SSRC), Suaad Eissa.
In one voting centre in downtown Khartoum, where over 900 southerners had registered, only 70 turned out to vote in the first three hours.
In the Izaiba area, some 17 representatives of local and international observer teams were present, following every move taken inside the centre.
The Carter Centre, the European Commission, the African Union, the League of Arab States all have deployed observers at the polling centres.
President Omar Al-Bashir has repeatedly said he will see to it that voters are protected and that no pressure is exercised on them. He also promised to accept the outcome of the voting, whether it is unity or separation.
However, President Al-Bashir has warned that he would apply the stipulations of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), to the effect that if southerners chose separation, then the 20% of the jobs they occupy in the federal government will automatically drop and they have to leave their posts.
But some of those who voted for unity told reporters at the voting centre that even if the majority vote for separation, they would still leave their government jobs and stay in the north, working in the private sector.
“It is not a question of unity or separation, it is a question of my family, I have seven children born here and are at the universities and schools, they learn in Arabic…you want me to tear them and take them where they could end up with street children, because they cannot continue their education,“ John Mabier, a federal government functionary, told reporters after casting his vote.
Observers believe that southerners in the south will vote overwhelmingly for separation.
Early in the morning, they were shown on local TV stations dancing and kissing the ballot papers.
Voting began at exactly 8:00 am local time and is set to continue up to 5:00 pm. The voting will continue till 15 Jan.
According to the SSRC, some 3,930,916 voters will take part in the process, including 3,753,815 in the south, 116,860 in the north and 60,241abroad.
The commission said the result of the referendum would be acceptable if the turnout exceeded 60% of the registered voters, in accordance with the stipulation of the CPA.
The referendum is the last chapter in the CPA signed in 2005, between the government and the then rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Nairobi, Kenya.
The CPA stipulates that the southern Sudanese be given the right to self determination in a plebiscite to be held five years after the implementation of the accord.
“We still don’t know the outcome of the vote, but even if southerners chose separation, it would be only a political one. Socially, economically, ethnically, and emotionally you could not separate the north from the south,'' the legal adviser for the Southern SPLM, Mohamed al Mutasem Hatim, told PANA on Sunday.
-0- PANA MO/SEG 9Jan2011