The role of transitional parliaments in making political settlements work: report on GPG’s December conference

This week’s blog reports on GPG’s virtual conference on the role of transitional parliaments in making political settlements work, which was held in December 2020.

On December 10th, Global Partners Governance held a virtual seminar on the role of transitional parliaments in making political settlements work. The conference paid particular attention to the case of Sudan, and marked the forthcoming creation of the country’s Transitional Legislative Council (TLC), which was one of the main promises that arose from the 2018 revolution.

Our speakers for this event were GPG’s Associate Prof. Mohamed Babiker, Dean of Law at University of Khartoum; Mervat Hamadelneil, Member of the Sudanese Civic Forces Alliance; Ammar Al Bagir, Member of the Sudanese Professionals Association Secretariat (SPA); Neimat Kuku, gender and human rights expert from Sudan; and Zaid Al Ali, Constitutional Expert for intergovernmental organisation International IDEA. The seminar was chaired by GPG’s Founder, Greg Power.

GPG has worked with several countries going through transitional processes in the past. Our experience with these institutions is that the level of expectations they face is often at its highest when the institutions are at their weakest, not least because the political forces at hand themselves will often be fragmented during these periods of uncertainty. The diversity of visions subsequently brought to the newly-formed institution becomes one of the main challenges it has to face. Indeed, while parliaments usually work with a relatively slow turnover, a brand-new parliament has every one of its members start at the same time, arriving with different goals and understandings of what duties their job is going to involve. With no established norms on which to base decisions, and with so much at stake for the future of the country, every choice is often questioned and contested, as it is uncertain what its consequences will be.

The agreed distribution of power within the parliament was identified as one of the main challenges for the formation of an effective Transitional Council. While the TLC was initially going to be formed at 67% of members selected from the coalition of civilian and rebel groups Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), and at 33% of members selected from the military in consultation with the FFC, an agreement reached in October 2020 with rebel groups changed this dynamic. The new treaty guaranteed the rebels 25% of the TLC, taken out of the FFC’s initial 67%. The parliament now finds itself divided between three political blocks, with three different sets of interests. As a result, the TLC, while vital for the future of Sudan, risks being ineffective and dependent on alliances to avoid a political and legal conundrum as no group will have of majority to take decisions.

This potential for alliances could however allow some groups to strategically monopolise legislative power. Beyond the main three factions – rebel groups, the military, and the FFC – a large portion of what Neimat Kuku calls ‘Sudan’s new social forces’, which includes women’s groups, youth groups, and trade unions, remain excluded from the transitional process. It is essential to nominate these groups to sit in the TLC, and to ensure that, once nominated, they will carry out their group’s own interests, and not become subordinated to the agenda of the political faction of party that placed them in office.

Furthermore, the country’s regional dimension must be considered. At the moment, as a result of the October 2020 agreement, some regions and states such as South Blue Nile, South Kurdufan, and Darfur were promised a disproportional representation in the TLC in relation to their population. Each region should be taken into account, and its population adequately represented in parliament. It is crucial for the TLC to acknowledge all social facets of Sudan if it is to carry out the goals of the revolution. Failure to represent the population will compromise the balance of power and disproportionally advantage the military. It is crucial for representative democracy to prevent the military from eroding the civic space, the political space, and the share of power held by rebel forces and civil society. As it is unlikely that either group will willingly concede power, in order to make the current power distribution work, all actors must agree on the minimum requirements for political change: constitution-making, transitional justice, electoral laws, and economic policies.

Economic reform is another one of the transitional period’s main challenges. Here again, power distribution and alliances are central, as the players at hand are divided on the topic. In this regard, the SPA and most civil and political parties outside of the FFC do not support economic liberalisation policies, while the other groups are in favour of such reform. The future of this debate will be determined by how the current most prominent actors will navigate public opinion and support.

To answer these challenges, Ammar Al-Baghir – and the SPA – believe that careful popular consultation is essential. The formation of the parliament needs to consider a much wider portion of Sudanese society, way beyond the three groups currently represented. In addition to this, Zaid Al-Ali highlights that, so far, the transition has not been conducted democratically, as no general elections took place. It is therefore not enough to simply consult the population to include it in the transitional process. It is essential to ensure that civil society at large, beyond being engaged with from time to time, is a real actor of political life. Failure to do so was a mistake that was observed in other countries going through transition – and an error not to repeat, stressed Al-Ali.

GPG will be closely following the situation’s developments in the coming months. This historical milestone for Sudan could be an exciting opportunity to expand the reach of the legislative apparatus and to allow it to better represent Sudan’s population. In the past, our work in Sudan brought us to support the building of parliamentary capacity and the protection of human rights. We look forward, in the new year and beyond, to continue assisting MPs and civil servants in strengthening representative politics.

You can watch the conference in full on our YouTube channel.