Khartoum: Presidential hopefuls in Sudan, Africa`s largest country, began campaigning on Saturday for the first multi-party poll since 1986, with the nation wondering whether an end might be in sight to incumbent Omar al-Bashir`s many years in power.
After being pushed back twice, the Presidential Election is set to take place on April 11, alongside Legislative and regional Elections.
Beshir, who seized power in 1989 with support from Islamists, is facing off against 11 other hopefuls, including the first woman ever to aspire to the presidency, and the two-time former prime minister he ousted.
The incumbent is also the world`s first sitting president facing an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court on charges of alleged crimes against humanity in Sudan`s western Darfur region.
The United Nations says up to 300,000 people have died and 2.7 million fled their homes since the ethnic minority rebels in Darfur first rose up against the Arab-dominated Khartoum government in February 2003.
Beshir`s main challengers in the race are Yasser Arman, a secular Muslim from north Sudan representing the ex-rebel Sudan People`s Liberation Movement, and Sadiq al-Mahdi, the premier whom Bashir ousted and who now leads the influential Islamist Umma Party.
Arman, 49, is counting on the solid support of the secessionist south Sudan, while the 74-year-old Mahdi`s main support base is in the north.
But in a country without opinion polls and which has not held real elections in decades, the outcome of the polls is anybody`s guess. The only fear of the opposition is that Bashir will use the levers of power, including the security forces, to skew things his way.
Rallies have been prohibited by Bashir`s government, but the opposition plans to test the waters during the month of campaigning to try and stage one anyway in Omdurman, the twin city of Khartoum.
"Everyone is wondering which side will win," said Mohammed, a 30-year-old man sipping tea in a run-down improvised cafe shaded by a tree.
"Bashir is very popular in Khartoum, but in the other regions I am not so certain."
Emerging from a devastating 22-year civil war that pit the dominant Muslim and Arab northern Sudanese against the largely non-Muslim, non-Arab southerners, even the most basic services are lacking in much of the remote and underdeveloped regions of this country of more than 41 million people
Simply getting the voting materials out across the vast region is a major logistical challenge, and will require the use of UN helicopters.
Concern also is high at the low rates of voter education in a region that is largely illiterate, and facing an incredibly complex poll.
There will be extra votes for a president in the secessionist south, which will decide on independence in a referendum next year.
Because regional and legislative polls are being held simultaneously with the Presidential Election, voters will be casting 12 ballots -- an extremely complicated process in a country left in ruins by the long years of war.
In addition, tensions are high with several influential SPLM figures running as independents after rejecting their party`s official choice of candidate.
Many Sudanese fear that political rivalries will spill over into violence, sparking off fresh clashes between different ethnic groups.