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MALWAL KOI, South Sudan -- Landing by cargo plane on a runway of sun-baked mud, close to the border of southern Darfur, I am greeted by an unexpected sight: a political rally. The president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, will be arriving shortly, campaigning for Paul Malong, the endangered, incumbent governor of the local area. The Sudan People's Liberation Movement -- South Sudan's armed, African rebellion against northern, Arabized rule, now turned ruling political party -- is out in force. Activists in red and white march and chant. Soldiers shoo children with sticks. Local tribal leaders carry spears, symbols of their authority.

This desolate, parched portion of South Sudan (dry at least until the rainy season turns every road into a mud river) was a battlefield during Sudan's 22-year civil war, which claimed 2 million lives before ending five years ago. Now it is a political battleground. Campaign posters plaster trucks and stalls at the market, some familiarly calling for "Hope and Change." Elections in mid-April will choose national and local leaders and set the stage for South Sudan's independence referendum, scheduled for January of next year. The outcome of these elections may determine if South Sudan becomes the world's newest nation -- or stillborn state, plunged back into one of history's bloodiest civil wars.

At opposition headquarters in nearby Aweil -- a brick-walled compound, holding an open, thatched meeting room -- Gen. Dau Aturjong predicts victory in his independent bid for governor. Dau fought as a guerrilla, gaining a reputation for honesty and restraint. He complains the SPLM has conducted a political purge -- putting candidate selection in the hands of illiterate party hacks, dominated by the current governor. "The most qualified people are not being employed," Dau says, clearly counting himself in that number. He criticizes SPLM corruption and warns of voter intimidation and outright fraud.

The next day, President Kiir, looking thin and exhausted, is dismissive of independent challenges to his ruling party, accusing them of being funded by the north. "It is the only way they can weaken the SPLM," he says. But Kiir is clearly worried enough to bring most of the SPLM leadership to the region to campaign. Will there be violence from whoever loses the election? "We have been all around telling our people not to be violent. People in the south know what violence is. They know the consequences."

Late in the evening, sitting outside under stars obscured by dust, I meet with an official who has ties to both camps. His face hidden by darkness, he worries that an election not seen as "clean" will spark violence. "When you get down to the tribe and clan level, the politicians are not really in control. The north would say, 'See, South Sudan is not ready for independence.'"

Constructing a new nation out of the material of South Sudan will be difficult under the best of circumstances. In this region, concrete is an almost unknown luxury. Farmers lack not only tractors but plows, doing nearly all of their cultivation with small hoes. The main sources of economic activity -- direct aid and oil revenues -- encourage more corruption than development.

But it is politics that could destroy South Sudan even before its birth. The SPLM, with its heroic, revolutionary past, is the only national institution in a divided, tribal society. But it suffers the same temptations as other revolutionary parties in Africa. Most of South Sudan's budget goes to the creation of government ghost jobs, allowing the SPLM to pressure public employees for support like a big city political machine. Heavy-handed political tactics by the SPLM elite have encouraged internal division instead of ending it. The wife of South Sudan's vice president, for example, is currently running as an independent candidate for governor in Unity, one of South Sudan's 10 states. These conflicts provide opportunities for the skilled, brutal rulers of the north to play side against side, as they have done before. The next generation of rebel leaders could already be in the bush with weapons.

To be the successful founders of a new country, SPLM leaders have an interest in accommodating dissent, fighting corruption and ensuring fair elections. As the main sponsor of the SPLM, the United States has an interest in encouraging this kind of democratic legitimacy -- the surest way to avoid a failed state and renewed conflict.

It would be a terrible irony if South Sudan, a land that has survived by exceptional courage, should die by suicide.