Mali’s Complicated Elections

Andrew Lebovich
Jul 23, 2013 · 7 min read

Since Mali’s presidential campaign officially opened earlier this month, its citizens have shown an impressive enthusiasm for the elections, filling stadiums and flooding social media to support their favored candidates.

Malians have endured nearly eighteen months of an unstable and catastrophic security and political environment. During this time, Malians saw their government overthrown, the takeover of the northern half of the country by a mixture of jihadist and separatist militants, the near beating to death of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)-approved transitional president Dioncounda Traoré, a French-led intervention, and now the installation of a UN peacekeeping force in the country.

France and the United States have been behind the relentless push toward elections in Mali, but they are not alone. The United Nations, ECOWAS, Mali’s transitional government, and nearly all of Mali’s presidential candidates have also expressed (at least publicly) their desire for polls to happen as scheduled. Some of Mali’s most senior officials, notably President Traoré, Foreign Minister Tieman Coulibaly, and Minister for Territorial Administration Moussa Sinko Coulibaly (who is responsible for organizing the elections) have all spoken publicly about the need for elections to continue apace. Last week, two of Mali’s leading political parties have already pledged to respect the results of the elections, refusing the opportunity to call for a delay.

Not all Malians and international observers, however, agree about the need to maintain the July 28 election date, coming as it does in the middle of Mali’s rainy season and amid continued unrest in the northern city of Kidal. For months the elections (and persistent doubts) were a widespread topic of conversation across West Africa, with many public figures and politicians expressing privately doubts that rarely filtered into the public eye. More recently, the head of Mali’s election commission publicly cast doubt on the election timeline, while regional research and advocacy organizations, including the International Crisis Group and the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (where I recently finished working as a consultant), have published calls for the elections to be delayed. Malian politician Tiébilé Dramé — a former Foreign Minister, and the negotiator of an increasingly tenuous ceasefire in northern Mali — went to court to try to force an election delay, while also castigating France for its dominant role in moving Mali’s political timeline forward.

There are good reasons to move toward elections quickly — namely, the need to replace Mali’s long-expired transitional government and for elections in order to restart American aid and different levels of cooperation with the Malian government. But there are also a number of important and unresolved issues related to the elections. And the most significant issues could directly affect the very legitimacy of the electoral process and outcome.

In these elections, Malians will vote using a biometric identification card that doubles as a regular ID, known as a NINA card. These cards, for Mali’s roughly 6.8 million eligible voters, were only delivered to Mali last month (after a controversial attribution process for the production contract). While the government claims that nearly 70% percent of the cards have been distributed, anecdotal evidence suggest major problems with the distribution, with some areas within and outside of Mali receiving or successfully distributing a smaller portion of the cards. For instance, of the 80,000 eligible voters in France, perhaps only 30,000 will actually be able to vote, based on the slow and uneven distribution of cards. Distribution rates are also very low in refugee camps surrounding Mali, not to mention among displaced populations within Mali (at least 525,000 people were either made refugees or displaced internally since the start of the Tuareg rebellion in January 2012).

Also problematic is the electoral list itself. The current list is based on a census conducted in 2009, but in the time since the census was compiled as many as 300,000 potential voters have come of age. The compressed timeline for elections meant that no provisions could be made for many of these voters, who are of age but unable to obtain voting cards. In other communes and towns, a vanishingly small number of people are registered to vote, as pointed out in a statement from Dramé’s PARENA party this week.

There are other key questions, including the ability of people to vote if they have been displaced from their home communes, the potential fraudulent possession of voter cards, possible attacks from militant groups against voting posts in the north (of particular concern given the slow progress in training the Malian army and the incomplete deployment of the UN peacekeeping force in Mali), and the persistent tension and insecurity in the Kidal Region, where officials including the governor only returned this week, political and ethnic rioting killed several people, and election officials working in the town of Tessalit were allegedly kidnapped by MNLA-linked fighters before being released Sunday.

In the face of these obstacles, and despite the increasing calls for a delay in the elections, the international community has pressed on. UN Chief Ban Ki-moon said this week, for instance, that Mali’s elections results should be respected, even if they are “imperfect,” suggesting a distressing attitude regarding the importance of democracy in places like Mali.

It is understandable given a number of immediate concerns that the international community and Malians would want to move toward quick elections. Mali’s transitional government is ineffective and has neither the legitimacy nor the leadership to deal with the complexity of Mali’s post-intervention government, corruption, and societal challenges. And for France, the U.S., and the UN, a “legitimate” and elected government is necessary to restart aide and cooperation, fully transition to the UN force, and try to craft a workable political environment.

The acceptance of a “good enough” approach in Mali, however, shows how the international community is privileging short-term thinking to Mali’s detriment.

Many Mali observers concerned about the rush to quick elections have pointed out the detrimental impact flawed elections will have on how Malians perceive democracy. Incredible corruption and ineffectiveness eroded faith in Mali’s previous governments and contributing to consistently low turnout in previous elections, among the lowest in West Africa. Malian press and internet forums are providing blanket coverage of the elections, and the public passion and appearances at rallies have been remarkable as the Presidential candidates — some representing Mali’s old political class, some its younger face — have toured the country in the last two weeks. In many ways, these elections present a unique opportunity to reset the relationship average Malians have with democracy, necessitating that these elections be as good as they can be, not just good enough.

That said, the risks of the appearance of flawed elections are only part of the story. The other side is that these elections are not just meant to solidify Mali’s transition, but will instead have far-reaching and long-term consequences.

Mali’s government is based around a strong presidential system where money and influence often flow through the capital Bamako. Administrative decentralization took place after 1997, creating hundreds of new local administrative units that still lacked the money and governing influence that remained the dominion of Mali’s highly corrupt administration and political class. Malian presidents can serve up to two terms of five years each. Whoever is elected president will have fairly wide-ranging official authority, on top of the authority that is harder to quantify, such as the ability to put loyalists throughout the government and distribute patronage to supporters. The presidential race is also taking place before scheduled parliamentary elections, meaning that the winning presidential candidate (and his party) will likely be able to exert a level of influence over those races as well. What happens now regarding Mali’s government could set the dominant political paradigm for at least the next five years, and possibly the next ten.

While it is important to think about the negative perceptions behind outsider-driven elections among Malians, consider also the message such a process sends to Mali’s politicians. With the exception of the ADEMA party’s Dramane Dembélé and Bamako’s Commune IV mayor Moussa Mara, many of the leading lights of the presidential campaign are remnants of Mali’s old guard, including former prime ministers and government ministers like Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Soumaila Cissé, and Soumeylou Boubèye Maiga. While the election of an established member of Mali’s political class would not necessarily guarantee a continuation of corrupt practices, it would certainly indicate an area for the international community to monitor closely.

More importantly, though, by pushing for early elections, we are sending the signal that the process and appearance of democracy and representative voting is what matters, rather than good governance. In that environment, where the U.S. and France have expressed their concern about Sahelian stability and the need for “legitimate” government, while the UN is gearing up for a long mission in Mali, politicians have little incentive to focus on mending Mali’s battered government and governance.

None of this is to say that continued corruption, ineffectiveness, and instability are a given. Mali’s political leaders know that this election is different than the past, and that many Malians are loathe to accept the kind of government that prevailed under deposed President Amadou Toumani Touré and before. In pushing for elections, the international community must be conscious of the fact that Mali’s elections are about the country’s future, not just about resolving current crises.

The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good, but “good enough” can sometimes be just as dangerous.

Thanks to Joshua Foust

    Andrew Lebovich

    Written by

    Learning/writing about the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, and France. Special interest in AQIM.

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