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Mali's key election marked by low expectations

Video by Eve IRVINE

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2013-07-28

Mali heads to the polls on July 28 in the first presidential election since last year’s coup and subsequent jihadist takeover of the north. Security risks and problems with voter lists are just some of the challenges facing the historic poll.

More than a year after a military coup sparked a perfect storm of crises in this West African nation, Mali goes to the polls on July 28 in a presidential election marked by low expectations.

Acknowledging the challenges facing Mali’s return to democratic governance, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has noted that even if the election was "imperfect", the poll results "must be respected".

Others have been more direct. “Malian and UN officials keep saying this election won’t be perfect, which is a little like saying that a Metallica concert won’t be quiet,” wrote Bruce Whitehouse, an anthropologist at the Pennsylvania-based Lehigh University, in his respected blog, “Bridges from Bamako”.

Despite the calls for a postponement, France, and to a lesser extent the international community – including the UN, the African Union and the west African bloc, ECOWAS – have pushed for the elections to be held on schedule.

Mali’s return to constitutional order and the establishment of a democratically elected government, that can tackle the chronic problems facing the nation, are at stake.

France needs a legitimate authority in place to declare its Malian mission a success as it begins drawing down the 4,500 French troops deployed to Mali in January. The US requires a democratically elected government to restart its aid and investments, and the UN requires a legitimate partner for MINUSMA, its peacekeeping and stabilisation mission in Mali.

In the space of a year, Mali had a military coup, which saw northern Mali fall to a motley mix of separatist and jihadist groups, which then required a French military intervention to liberate the north from Islamist control.

On July 28, Mali holds its first election since the March 2012 coup, taking its first step on the roadmap to democratic restoration. Here are some of the issues and logistics at stake in this critical vote:

Security above all: Ethnic tensions and Islamist violence

Although the French military operation succeeded in wresting control of northern Mali from jihadist groups, security remains a top concern – especially in the northern Malian town of Kidal.

In June, Mali’s interim administration signed a ceasefire deal with the Tuareg separatist MNLA group, which enabled Malian military troops to enter the MNLA stronghold of Kidal.

But the deadly violence in Kidal has persisted, sparking questions over whether Malian authorities will be able to conduct a credible voting process in the flashpoint town.

Just weeks before Election Day, four people were killed in ethnic clashes between the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and black residents in Kidal. Days later, four election workers were kidnapped in Kidal while distributing voter cards and briefly detained until French troops managed to secure their release.

More than a year after the fall of northern Mali, this West African nation remains deeply divided, with suspicion of the MNLA running high. Many Malians blame the Tuareg separatist group for the crises that enveloped the country following the MNLA’s April 2012 declaration of the independence of the north.

This distrust is the latest manifestation in Mali’s long history of Tuareg rebellions with its roots in deep-seated grievances dating back to the colonial period, which have never been decisively addressed and will remain the biggest challenge of any future Malian government.

Although the Islamist militants fled after the French intervention in January, attacks by al Qaeda-linked jihadist groups still represent a threat, especially in and around the northern cities of Gao and Timbuktu. Some of the region’s most battle-hardened Islamist militants operate in the lawless Sahel - or intermediate zone between the African savannah and the Sahara – which runs through northern Mali, including AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) and terror mastermind Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s group, al-Mouwakoune bi-Dimaa or “Those Who Sign in Blood”.

Logistical challenge

The precarious security situation has exacerbated the logistical nightmares of conducting the 2013 presidential election.

In the run-up to the July 28 poll, there have been myriad problems with election lists and voter rolls, with many Malians inside the country as well as in the diaspora complaining that their names are not on voter lists.

In a country of more than 15 million people with around 500,000 people displaced by the conflict, election officials have been unable to enroll hundreds of thousands of voters, according to conservative estimates. An Associated Press analysis of figures provided by the National Independent Election Commission found the 2013 voter database did not include 18-year-olds, a lapse of between 100,000 and 300,000 potential voters.

The candidates: Four former PMs and one female

Under Mali’s election law, presidential candidates must be at least 35-years-old and have the backing of 10 legislators or five local councillors from each of the country's nine administrative regions.

While 28 presidential hopefuls qualified as candidates, one of the leading contenders withdrew his candidacy weeks before the election. Tiébilé Dramé, one of the architects of the June peace deal with the MNLA, quit the race to protest the lack of preparation surrounding the election.

Although Mali’s presidential candidate list includes some newcomers – including one female – the heavyweight candidates include four former prime ministers with extensive experience in the patronage politics that characterised Malian politics before the March 2012 coup. [Click here for Mali’s presidential candidate profiles]

On July 28, Mali’s 27 candidates will vie for the most difficult job in this conflict-ridden West African nation. If none of them secures an outright majority, a second round is scheduled for August 11.


Date created : 2013-07-24

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