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 decentralize power to address the factors that fueled 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 southern 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. Tensions around the vote have many warning of violence during elections and as results come in.
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 has co-opted the independent National Election Commission.
Major opposition parties 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.
They met Friday to decide whether the 11 opposition candidates running against al-Bashir will pull out.
At least one major party, the Democratic Unionist Party, decided to withdraw its presidential candidate but said it will still contest the local and provincial elections.