* Arman urges opposition to follow SPLM stance
* Says SPLM could boycott all elections in north (Adds southern quotes, comments from opposition)
By Andrew Heavens
KHARTOUM, April 1 (Reuters) - U.S. envoy Scott Gration began crisis talks with political leaders in Sudan on Thursday after a candidate withdrew from the coming presidential election, threatening Sudan’s tortuous reconciliation process.
Yasir Arman, the candidate for South Sudan’s dominant Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), pulled out on Wednesday, less than two weeks before voting, citing insecurity in Darfur and fears of electoral fraud.
Opposition parties were due to meet later on Thursday to discuss whether to unite with the SPLM in boycotting the vote, a move that could wreck Sudan’s first multi-party elections in 24 years.
The presidential, parliamentary and gubernatorial elections are central to a 2005 peace deal that ended more than two decades of civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and the South, where most are Christian or follow traditional beliefs.
As part of the peace accord, the SPLM joined incumbent president Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (NCP) in a fragile national coalition government.
The SPLM also said it would boycott all voting in Darfur, the scene of a seven-year conflict, going back on an earlier threat to pull out of the whole vote in the north in solidarity with opposition parties.
Analysts said Arman’s withdrawal effectively handed the presidential race to Bashir and could be part of a deal with Bashir’s northern-based NCP to guarantee a referendum on independence for the South, also promised under the peace deal.
But Arman denied any deal, saying there was no point in participating in the election, and that the NCP had already rigged it for Bashir to win. He urged the opposition to take the same stance as his SPLM party.
“I will encourage them (the opposition) not to give legitimacy to Bashir — to boycott the election, especially in Darfur and the presidential election,” he told Reuters.
He added the SPLM might still stage a full boycott of all the elections across the north, beyond Darfur, if the opposition decided to do so.
If the opposition does also boycott the presidential vote, it will derail any claim by Bashir to have been elected in a fully democratic process.
But continued participation in the parliamentary election could give them some say over the passage of laws or any constitutional changes if they won a sizeable share of the vote.
Gration flew to Khartoum hoping to save the elections, and was shuttling between opposition and government officials.
“The American are here to save the process,” opposition presidential candidate Mubarak al-Fadil said after meeting Gration. “They want to see a fair and credible election to see the election produce a new reality.”
But he said Gration had dismissed their proposal to delay the polls until November.
People in South Sudan said they were disappointed the SPLM would not field a contender against Bashir, but that the referendum was more important to them.
“Perhaps it was a deal between the SPLM and the NCP to protect the referendum,” civil servant Manong Thot said in the southern capital, Juba.
Doctor Victor Jal said it was the right move.
“This election is not going to be free and fair — the NCP is going to rig it, everyone knows this,” he said. “What is important for us is just the referendum.”
Sudan’s north-south war killed 2 million people and destabilised much of east Africa. Darfur’s separate conflict has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives in violence that Washington says amounts to genocide by the Sudanese government.
Last year the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against Bashir for war crimes in Darfur, but this has so far not undermined his position at home or prevented him travelling to a number of friendly countries. (Additional reporting by Skye Wheeler in Juba, editing by Opheera McDoom and Kevin Liffey)