Not a single vote has yet been cast in Sudan's elections but already international pressure groups and domestic opponents of the current government are queuing up to rubbish the process. This chorus of condemnation seems a little premature. It also misses the point. While it's likely the polls will be flawed in important respects, in a fundamental sense, that does not matter. For the major players inside and outside Sudan, the elections, beginning on Sunday, are merely a staging post on a much longer journey.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the international criminal court, is among the most outspoken critics. He said sending EU and African Union observers to monitor the vote was a waste of time. “It's like monitoring a Hitler election,” he said. Moreno-Ocampo urged western countries to concentrate instead on arresting Sudan's president, Omar al-Bashir, charged by the ICC with war crimes and crimes against humanity in Darfur.

Moreno—Ocampo has a particular axe to grind. Like the Waging Peace and the Save Darfur Coalition pressure groups, broader issues of democratic governance and implementation of the 2005 comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan's ruinous north—south civil war take second place, in his view, to the importance of avenging Darfur and arraigning Bashir in The Hague.

“It is clear to all observers that these much heralded ‘multi-party elections' have never been more than an attempt by [Bashir] to legitimise his position in the eyes of the international community,” said Sophie McCann of Waging Peace. The process was “unsalvageable”. For its part, Save Darfur seized on the partial poll boycott by some opposition parties to urge the US, Britain and others to disown the whole business and condemn Bashir's “dictatorial rule”.

Mixed motives also lie behind the decision of the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), the main southern political party, to boycott polling in Darfur and the north. The SPLM and other opposition groups have voiced concerns about the accuracy of the 2008 census on which voting is based, the ruling National Congress party's (NCP) monopoly of state resources, and alleged bias of the national elections commission.

These worries are shared by independent organisations such as the Carter Centre (former US president Jimmy Carter is due in Sudan with 60 observers) and the International Crisis Group, which says many displaced Darfuris will be denied a vote. Human Rights Watch accuses both the government and the SPLM of intimidating political rivals, although the picture is mixed. Overall, media controls have been relaxed and some opposition leaders have been give airtime.

Yet Sudan experts say it's clear that the SPLM's main concern is not the elections at all, but rather avoiding any delay to January's CPA-directed referendum on southern independence (which is widely expected to result in Sudan's partition). Thus its decision not to contest the presidential or parliamentary votes in northern areas suits Bashir's NCP very well, despite protestations to the contrary. The unspoken deal is plain enough: Bashir the bogeyman gets re-elected and relegitimised, while the south (comprising 25% of the population) and its U.S.-backed president, Salva Kiir, gets independence (and 50% of Sudan's oil wealth).

Political opportunism and pragmatism have combined neatly. “The SPLM decided to pull out simply because they know they are not going to win the presidency,” said NCP official Omar Rahma in an al-Jazeera interview. Nor does the SPLM seem troubled by the fact that its unilateral decision to mount a partial boycott threw other opposition parties, with which it was supposedly coordinating, into confusion. That the SPLM boycott worries western pressure groups is a measure of their naivety.

The Obama administration and Britain cannot be accused of such credulousness. What they most want from these elections is already clear — and it is not a democratic showcase or Bashir's arrest. They want north-south deals on border demarcation and oil-revenue sharing, settlements in trouble spots such as Abyei and South Kordofan, and a successful independence referendum as envisaged by the CPA. The US, in particular, sees a future southern Sudanese republic as an important ally.

The western powers see in this outcome the prospect of a final, lasting peace in Darfur, wider regional stability encompassing Chad, and ultimately, Khartoum's rehabilitation. A recent joint statement by the UK foreign secretary David Miliband and the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton set priorities: “Irrespective of the outcome of elections, it is essential that work continues and is accelerated to meet remaining CPA deadlines.” Predictions that Sudan's elections will produce an Afghanistan-style fiasco of rigging and recrimination misunderstand the position. All the main actors want a success, and that is what they will most probably deem the polls to be, with the usual caveats and reservations, almost whatever the outcome. This conformity of purpose elicited a remarkable boast from Bashir, speaking in Sinar on the Blue Nile last week: “Even America is becoming an NCP member. No one is against our will.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion