Last month, the government of Mali decreed that the first round of the country’s presidential elections would be held on 28 July, with a second round scheduled for 11 August in the event that no candidate receives an outright majority of votes in the first round. The regime of Interim President Dioncounda Traoré has been making a show of getting ready for the vote, publicizing a three-week period of renewed registration for displaced voters earlier this month, and taking delivery of new biometric ID cards Mali’s roughly seven million voters will need to cast their ballots. And the recently signed Ouagadougou Accords cleared up one major stumbling block, allowing the vote to be conducted in the Kidal region in the country’s far north, where rebels had formerly vowed not to allow the government to organize elections on territory they controlled.
And Mali is not wanting for presidential candidates. So far, about two dozen have announced their intentions to run, only a handful of them “serious contenders” with a chance of garnering more than a few thousand votes. Today, 28 June, is the last day for Malians to register as candidates officially. It’s also exactly 30 days before the scheduled first round of voting.
Let’s cut to the chase: Mali will not be prepared for elections 30 days from now. If the vote isn’t delayed, all signs point to an electoral shambles that could spark yet another crisis.
Yesterday Mamadou Diamountani, head of the country’s national electoral commission, went public with his misgivings about meeting the 28 July deadline. He described production of those new biometric IDs as “way behind schedule.” Though Diamoutani didn’t say so in as many words, getting these cards to millions of Malians simply can’t be done in a month. Distributing voter IDs in Bangladesh took 90 days, and that’s in a country with a more capable state infrastructure and a significantly smaller area than Mali. What happens when a million or more Malian citizens are denied access to the polls because their cards haven’t reached them yet? What about the hundreds of thousands of Malians displaced by conflict? “I have said it before and I will say it now: It will be very difficult to stick to the date of July 28,” Diamoutani told The Associated Press today. [For those unfamiliar with the way Malians talk, this is code for “It will be impossible to stick to the date.”]
Diamoutani’s reservations are widely shared within the Malian government, but the July date is dictated by Mali’s donors — especially France — who have their own agendas, and thus far appear oblivious to facts on the ground. They continue to insist on a 28 July vote.
The July timeline was always unrealistic, as I wrote in March and April. When it comes to organizing this poll, Kidal (where the electoral process has yet to begin) and its tiny populace may be the least of Mali’s problems. Government administrators are still largely absent from formerly rebel-held areas of northern Mali. By late July the region’s rainy season, which is getting off to a late start, will (God willing) be in full swing; this will keep most of the country’s rural inhabitants, two-thirds of the population, out in their fields, and will make transporting electoral materials and workers in remote areas extremely difficult. The date set for the first round of voting also happens to fall within the fasting month of Ramadan, threatening to reduce voter turnout even further.
“Yes, the country does need a presidential election,” Gilles Yabi of the International Crisis Group recently told VOA. “But if they mess this up, if there is weak voter participation and if there is a part of the country, the South, that votes and a part, the North, that does not really vote, then that will not help Mali come out of this crisis and deal with its deeper issues of governance.” Yabi’s organization has called on Malian officials “to consider delaying the process” by “no more than three months” to allow the completion of voter ID distribution, the return of Malian administrators to former conflict zones, and enable those internally displaced and those living in refugee camps to participate in the vote.
If donors don’t allow President Traoré’s administration to delay the date, a vote probably will still be conducted on 28 July. But it won’t lead to a government that Malians feel will defend their interests over the interests of foreign governments and corporations. It won’t put an end to the inertia that’s been gripping the Malian state since well before the 2012 rebellion and coup. It won’t provide a mandate for the new regime to enter into difficult post-election talks with Tuareg rebels. “The vote will be legal, but it won’t be legitimate,” as Professor Issa N’Diaye put it to VOA. In short, it won’t resolve any of the problems it’s supposed to.
There’s still time for the U.S. and French governments, who have been driving Mali’s electoral process, to let the Malians push their elections back to a more sensible date in October. By then, many (though not all) of the natural and man-made obstacles to a well-conducted, representative vote will be out of the way.
People like Professor N’Diaye believe that France and the U.S. don’t want to see Mali succeed; they see the great powers as bent on destabilizing Mali to gain control of its natural resources. This viewpoint, which is widespread among Malian intellectuals, is one I really don’t share. But should it come to pass that Mali heads into ill-prepared elections at the insistence of the great powers to suit their own timetable, the predictions of N’Diaye and his camp may very well come true, and Mali’s new government will have been set up for failure. When that happens, it won’t matter to Malians whether the great powers’ intentions at the time were benevolent or malevolent. They’ll just know that their country was further divided by something the wealthy countries could have prevented, but didn’t.
Postscript, 8 July: Candidate Tiébilé Dramé has filed suit with Mali’s high court to postpone the election, arguing that the condition of voter rolls in the Kidal region violates the constitution’s provisions for the organizing of elections and denies Malian citizens their right to vote. Calls for postponement have also come from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa and the Washington Post. Thus far, however, neither the French nor the Malian government has shown any willingness to deviate from the officially scheduled election date.
Postscript 2, 16 July: The right-wing Heritage Foundation has now jumped on the “delay the vote in Mali” bandwagon. Perhaps it’s time I reconsider my position….