Elections must be held in Mali, and soon; of that there can be no doubt. Mali desperately needs new leadership. The current caretaker government, put in place last year after negotiations between ECOWAS and the junta that ousted the unpopular Amadou Toumani Touré (ATT) from power, has little legitimacy and even less incentive to address the country’s pressing problems. Mali’s interim head of state, Dioncounda Traoré, might be the feeblest, least dynamic leader Mali has ever seen. His most notable action during his year in power has been his decision to wear a white scarf around his neck. Some cynics in the opposition brand his regime “ATT sans ATT.”
Mali’s main donors, France and the US, have repeatedly insisted that fresh national elections be held. The US government is barred by its own legislation from providing any military or development aid to Mali until a new vote is held. So, in late January, the Malian government duly announced that elections would be organized in July, and its representatives continue publicly to stick by that timetable.
Unfortunately, there are at least four obvious reasons why a July poll date is unrealistic.
- Part of the country is still entirely outside government control. Towns in the region of Kidal, cradle of multiple rebellions since Mali’s independence including the most recent one, have been occupied by separatist MNLA rebels since Islamist forces abandoned them in late January. While the French have kept the separatists at arm’s length, so far the Malian armed forces have been either unable or unwilling to enter the region and confront the MNLA, which refuses to disarm or permit elections until it can negotiate some form of regional autonomy with the Malian government. Such concessions would be political poison for authorities in Bamako, however, where the MNLA is widely seen as a criminal organization which must be dealt with harshly.
- Insecurity persists even in some government-held regions. A spate of suicide bombings and attacks in Gao and Timbuktu since February has shown that the Malian army’s control of these towns remains tenuous. It would be simple for a few committed terrorists to disrupt the electoral process and intimidate people into staying home.
- Critical electoral infrastructure is not yet in place. The Malian government only awarded a contract to produce voter ID cards in April. Even if the contractor produces and delivers them on time, the mere process of distributing them to nearly seven million Malian voters would be daunting in the best of times. And, given that hundreds of thousands of Malians are still displaced from the conflict, this is not the best of times.
- It’s just the wrong time of year. July is a critical month in Mali’s agricultural calendar: it’s the month when rainfall becomes regular and cultivation activity peaks. In other words, Mali’s mainly rural population will be preoccupied with other things. The rains will also make travel difficult in much of the country, with flooding and impassible roads. French troops in all-terrain vehicles had a rough time crossing the Timbuktu region at the height of the dry season; how will poll workers access these areas after the rains have begun? As if all that weren’t enough, July this year largely overlaps with the month of Ramadan, which will also hinder participation in elections.
One of the great failings of Mali’s formally democratic system over the past 20 years has been the lowest voter turnout in West Africa: turnout in Mali has been consistently below 40 percent, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (see chart below). In other words, even with none of the above obstacles, most eligible voters did not participate in the process. If a vote is held in July, it’s likely that even fewer Malians would take part — and the process would not achieve its purpose of establishing a new government which most Malians would regard as legitimate.
Recently the head of Mali’s electoral commission went public with his doubts that elections could be organized by July. Donor governments also seem to understand that such a timetable is unrealistic; the US State Department has softened its language somewhat, calling for elections “in July or as soon as technically feasible.” In France as well, many analysts believe their government’s apparently uncompromising language in favor of a July vote is an effet d’annonce, a media ploy aimed to spur action from the Malian government — a tactic similar to giving an ultimatum to a tarrying home repair contractor. According to one French policy observer, these statements are intended to compel the Malians “to move the electoral process forward. If we don’t say anything, nothing will move forward. [Even] if we’re optimistic, the presidential election won’t take place before October.”
While quick elections are therefore unlikely, there’s two reasons for hope that the eventual vote will succeed. One, despite their growing discontent with the practice of governance in their country over the past decade, Malians remain overwhelmingly committed to democratic ideals and institutions, at least in the abstract. The rate of Afrobarometer respondents expressing attachment to elections has remained consistently high (82 percent in December 2012, unchanged from ten years before). Moreover, when asked an open-ended question about the best way to “move beyond a regime that is corrupt and incompetent,” respondents in the six government-controlled regions of Mali last December identified elections more frequently than any alternative.
Two, when a vote does take place, given historically low turnout rates, any turnout above 50 percent would make the process look like a resounding success. Given the mood in the country, with many Malians keen to send a message to their leaders, such an outcome is not out of the question.
What Mali does not need now is a flawed, ill-prepared process that ordinary Malians will dismiss as another “electoral hold-up” geared to protect the interests of politicians in power. It does not need a premature vote that will not extend over the country’s full territory. The country’s citizens want, and deserve, an election that will inspire their confidence.
Postscript, 9 May: L’Indépendant, one of Bamako’s more respectable newspapers, claims that Mali’s transitional government has secretly dispatched emissaries to Paris to “negotiate the postponement” of July elections.
Postscript two, 10 May: Africa Confidential concludes that Mali’s government has scarcely begun to prepare for elections, and that foreign partners (notably France and the EU) “see the importance of credible elections” and are “sympathetic” to calls to delay the vote until the end of the year.
Postscript three, 14 May: Ambroise Vedrines of Slate Afrique has published a call to “abandon the idea of July elections.” Also, a conversation between Bruce Hall, Baz Lecocq, Greg Mann and myself about Mali’s situation has just appeared on African Arguments.
Postscript four, 5 June: Deutsche Welle’s website has published an article entitled “Mali’s Rush to the Ballot Box,” outlining the same issues discussed above. It concludes with what it calls “good news: “The biometric voter registration cards are going to be printed and distributed in time for the election.” Distributed by the manufacturer to the Malian government, maybe — but probably not to Malian voters. That process took three months in Bangladesh, where the state is reasonably intact. It will probably take at least as long in Mali.