Khartoum, Sudan - Sudan's first multi-party elections in decades have been thrown into disarray by allegations of government violations and opposition threats of a boycott.
The disputes wreck hopes of transforming a conflict-plagued nation and could instead end up fuelling violence in Darfur and the south.
The election, set to begin April 11, had been billed as a chance to bring democracy to Sudan and start to heal a history of turmoil: 50 years of civil war between north and south that killed 2 million people, repeated military coups, and years of violence in the western Darfur region that the U.S. called the 21st century's first genocide and that brought international war crimes charges against the president, Omar al-Bashir.
The United States and other nations have invested heavily in the elections, which are required under a 2005 peace deal between north and south mediated by Washington.
But experts say the elections are likely to be deeply flawed and won't resolve the deep mistrust between the multiple sides - leaving the divisions that could once again re-ignite into violence.
"I think it is a hugely lost opportunity for Sudan," said John Norris, executive director of the Washington-based advocacy group Enough project, which focuses on Darfur and Sudan.
The 2005 peace agreement that ended civil war "was built around transformation and democratic reform, and those key elements ... have largely been ignored," he said.
Many in the south are already looking forward to a more crucial vote next year: a referendum on independence for their oil-rich region. But many fear the north will do anything to prevent the referendum from being held, which could bring the two sides again to the brink of war.
The mainly Christian and animist south fought for decades against rule by the mainly Muslim north. The separate conflict in the western region of Darfur erupted in 2003, when ethnic African tribes rose up complaining of discrimination by the Arab-led government in Khartoum.
The theory behind this month's local, parliamentary and presidential elections has been that they would loosen al-Bashir's autocratic control and decentralise power to address the factors that fuelled conflicts in Africa's largest nation ahead of the crucial referendum.
But in the lead-up to the vote, there's been little sign of that happening. Arrangements for the referendum and crucial demarcation of the north-south border around oil-rich areas are still not in place, angering southerners.
Darfur remains under a state of emergency, many of its refugee community disenfranchised or intimidated by the state presence, while violence continues, bringing the legitimacy of any voting there into question. Opposition groups said U.S. envoy Scott Gration suggested partial elections in Darfur as a way to answer their complaints.
And in general, opposition parties accuse al-Bashir's government of seeking to keep its monopoly on power despite the vote.
Candidates, backed by reports from international observers and rights groups, complain al-Bashir's party has used state resources for campaigning, arrested and intimidated activists, denied them free access to the media, and co-opted the independent National Election Commission.
The Umma Party and other major opposition groups threatened to boycott the vote, saying they won't participate in "incomplete" elections that would "falsify the people's will" and demanding a delay to address the problems.
Two of 11 opposition presidential candidates - including the sole southern candidate Yasser Arman - already have withdrawn from the race while others said they were considering following suit.
Al-Bashir, on a campaign rally last week, sent a clear message to the southerners. He warned that the southern referendum is in jeopardy if the opposition, backed by the south, continue to call for election delay.
Arman's withdrawal may have been in response to that threat, to give up the race in order to improve chances for the referendum taking place.
Southern Sudan's President Silva Kiir, who is also head of the southern party, was quoted on a pro-government news Web site as saying his party pulled out its candidate in favour of al-Bashir's party "to protect peace."
"I think it was a very careful strategic hedge," Norris said. "I think they did what everyone else did, in terms of deciding that this was just a box-checking exercise that wouldn't fundamentally change the power relationships in Sudan."
Al-Bashir's party ridiculed the opposition's boycott threats as a desperate move from ageing parties and "agents" of the U.S.
"These are outdated parties," said Fathi Sheila, a spokesman for the ruling National Congress Party. "The parties failed to reach an agreement and ... the people don't buy these campaigning tactics."
U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Friday the opposition had "legitimate" concerns about the elections' fairness but urged the sides to come up with a deal that would ensure maximum participation.
Al-Bashir is hoping for the vote to give his legitimacy a boost as he holds out against the war crimes indictment against him from the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court over atrocities in Darfur.
Few believe that any of the candidates could unseat al-Bashir - given the divisions among the multiple northern-based opposition parties and the ruling party's strong grip on security and intelligence agencies.
But lower-level elections - of provincial assemblies and, for the first time, direct election of provincial governors - are seen as a breakthrough opportunity to more fairly distribute power and break the patronage system by which the ruling party controlled the provinces and resources.
However, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group said in a recent report that a faulty vote in Darfur would only increase Khartoum's hold there.