Five key questions about Mali’s election

The international media flock to cover elections for the same reasons they flock to cover sensational courtroom trials: these happenings are scheduled in advance, and have great potential for drama. As another election draws near, the world’s attention is turning back to Mali after a brief post-Serval lull.

US media coverage of African elections tends to frame election day as the culmination of a process of transition from an unstable, authoritarian society to a peaceful, democratic one. It portrays voting as organized by ethnic blocs, and focuses on what candidates say in their campaign speeches rather than what voters actually expect them to do. Such depictions are often misleading. Since understanding what’s at stake in Mali’s election depends on asking the right questions, I’d like to propose the following ones along with some preliminary answers.

How will voting take place?

Mali’s 1992 constitution requires the winner of a presidential election to gain the majority of votes cast. If no candidate wins such a majority on Sunday, 28 July, a second round must be held in which the top two vote-winners from the first round face off against each other; this so-called “two-round system” is used in dozens of other countries. Mali’s second round of voting, should it be necessary, will be on Sunday, 11 August.

Ballot boxes in Bamako (Reuters photo)

Ballot boxes in Bamako (Reuters photo)

This year, for the first time, Malians must have a biometric ID card in order to vote. While this is intended to prevent identity fraud, in practice these cards won’t be any improvement over the old photo ID cards, since the equipment necessary for an individual to verify his or her identity isn’t in the field yet. Many would-be voters are having a hard time getting the new cards, and although any citizen over the age of 18 has the right to vote, 300,000 Malians between the ages of 18 and 21 will be a priori excluded from this election, since the voter rolls are based on an administrative survey conducted four years ago.

What factors will influence Malian voters’ choices?

In Mali, as Cristina Barrios and Tobias Koepf write in a recent analysis for the European Union Institute for Security Studies, “political life is more about networking and outreach through family and business ties than any concrete vision for the state or the pursuit of socio-economic goals.” Voting in Mali, as in many places, is often an expression of patronage politics or loyalty to a particular group rather than an expression of political ideology.

Ethnicity is an important part of Malian social life, but it is not a dominant factor in Malian voting behavior. Some solid political science research has demonstrated that although Malian voters show a preference for candidates of their own ethnic identity, this preference is cancelled out by “cross-cutting cleavages” that form around senenkunya or joking relations (item 4 on my list of “four things to love about Mali“). So ethnic affiliation does not carry the political weight in Mali that it does in Kenya or Cote d’Ivoire, where an individual’s ethnicity is a strong predictor of which candidate they support.

What do Malian voters want?

Given Mali’s traumas of the last 18 months, it’s tempting to believe that this election will be mainly about questions of national unity and reconciliation. But an outreach campaign just concluded by SOS Démocratie, a Malian grassroots activist association, suggests something different. It identifies the main concerns raised by voters in six regions — Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso, Segou, Mopti and Timbuktu — plus various neighborhoods of Bamako. (See the table of results in a French-language PDF document.) These voters are overwhelmingly concerned about the high cost of living, unemployment, corruption, law and order, and everyday quality-of-life questions, particularly water and sanitation. Preserving national unity and ending conflict are also concerns, but much further down the list of priorities.

Reaching a definitive agreement with Tuareg rebels will indeed be one duty of the new Malian president. Yet given the sway of donor countries, especially France, over Mali’s interim government in recent months, it seems probable that any such agreement will reflect donor priorities more than the will of Malian voters.

What changes will this election bring?

A great many Malians would like to elect a leader who can make a clean break with past ways of governing, and chart a new course for their country’s democracy. Some of the 27 candidates currently in the running appear capable of doing so. Unfortunately, the candidates best positioned to win this race are all tightly connected to the same political establishment that’s been running Mali for the last 20-plus years. The following four men will, I suspect, garner the most votes; their odds are confirmed by Sidiki Guindo’s latest poll. (For a complete list of candidates and their profiles, see my previous post.) While all promise to deliver change, not one could be considered an “outsider candidate.”

  • “Dra” (Dramane Dembélé) Dra2is only 45 years old and on his first run for office, but has the backing of Mali’s largest and most powerful political party, ADEMA. This party ruled the country from 1992 to 2002 and played a role in every government since. Dioncounda Traoré, the former speaker of parliament, was its presidential hopeful until last year’s coup; this year, as interim president, he’s barred from running, so ADEMA had to pick someone else. Anxious to dissociate their party from the past, ADEMA’s leaders went with Dembélé, a virtual unknown. This former mining engineer carries some baggage over and above his ADEMA affiliation: as a former top official of the ministry of mines, he was briefly detained last year by the army junta which suspected him of skimming off state mining revenues. Nevertheless, there are allegations in the Malian press that the junta now backs his campaign.
  • “Soumi” (Soumaïla Cissé) Soumiwas seen as the “establishment candidate” when he ran as ADEMA’s candidate for president (and lost to Amadou Toumani Touré) in 2002. He subsequently founded his own party. Now 63, he is running a well-funded campaign. He has been a bitter opponent of the junta, which repeatedly raided his house, roughed him up and detained him in 2012. Despite the fact that he’s been out of government for over a decade, his previous association with ADEMA and his 1990s ministerial service under President Alpha Konaré mean many Malians continue to see him a pillar of the country’s classe politique.
  • “IBK” (Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta)IBK
    is yet another ex-ADEMA stalwart, having spent six years as Konaré’s prime minister before forming his own breakaway party. He’s run for president in two previous elections, and served as parliamentary speaker during ATT’s first term. At 68, IBK is taking his last shot at the presidency. This week he was endorsed by SABATI, a new Malian political organization with an Islamic (possibly Islamist) agenda (see Alex Thurston’s analysis of SABATI). Some Malians believe he is France’s preferred candidate, while others think he’s too close to the junta. [Some journalists are saying now that IBK “never criticized the coup,” but this is flat-out wrong.]
  • “Modibo” (Modibo Sidibé) Soumiwas a minister and prime minister under ATT, and for many Malians embodies the legacy of ATT’s decade in office. He was widely thought to be ATT’s handpicked successor: following the 2012 coup, Bamako buzzed with rumors that troops had uncovered a vast store of “Vote Modibo” campaign material in the presidential palace, although none was ever made public. (See Modibo’s own videotaped recitation of, and rejection of, such rumors.) He too was arrested by the junta last year. Now 60 years old, Modibo has lots of money to spend on this campaign — his key chains are all over Bamako — but probably also has the highest negative ratings of any contender. Some Malian newspapers alleged that he narrowly escaped being “lynched” during a visit to Paris last April, at the hands of angry Malian immigrants.

If elected, any of these four men would have huge debts (monetary and political) to repay the entrenched interests supporting their campaigns. They will therefore be poorly positioned to deliver the kind of transformation of governance most Malians desire. Barring a surprise showing by a more committed reformer (like Soumana Sako or Moussa Mara), dramatic change at the top of Mali’s political system appears implausible.

What can go wrong?

The three most likely problems are, in no particular order:

  • Disorganization: This election is being “delivered with forceps,” under unrelenting French pressure. Rushed preparations will create widespread logistical problems. Many citizens won’t get their voter cards in time, and some of those who do won’t know where to cast their ballots.
  • Trouble up north: The Kidal region was the scene last week of what the BBC calls “race riots”, plus the kidnapping of election workers. Although the MNLA separatist rebel group officially backs the electoral process, many of its members adamantly oppose their leaders’ decision to allow Malian elections on the territory of what they still view as “Azawad.”
  • Fraud: One candidate, Soumaïla Cissé, has warned of “preparations of massive fraud” involving 1.9 million voter cards printed without photos (which, if true, would account for 28 percent of all cards delivered). Rumors in the Malian press suggest that the buying and selling of votes is already underway. The question is not whether fraud will occur in this election, but whether the extent of fraud will invalidate the results. SOS Démocratie has set up a website and phone network where citizens can report rigging, disorganization, intimidation, vote buying, and other abuses. (This network is modeled on the Ushahidi platform that Kenyans used to flag post-electoral violence in early 2008.)

Too much of any of the above could rob the vote of its legitimacy. Some believe it’s already too late: last week Tiébilé Dramé, one of the original 28 presidential candidates, pulled out of the race, saying the conditions for a fair election weren’t in place. Another candidate, Mountaga Tall, told RFI this week that voting “will be in no way inclusive. Turnout isn’t a given due to the rainy season. We are sure of poor organization.” The results are almost certain to be contested: one candidate (guess who?) has already declared that any vote he doesn’t win must be rigged.

But this vote is happening regardless, and many Malians are cautiously optimistic that it will close the book on the current period of uncertainty and unrest. Let’s hope that the obstacles mentioned here will be overcome, and that the donors’ risky push for quick elections will pay off for the Malian people. And let’s hope there won’t be too much drama.

Recommended pre-electoral reading:

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8 Responses to Five key questions about Mali’s election

  1. Aurelien says:

    Hi Bruce,

    On your last point (1.9 million voter cards…) the ccusations have been proved wrong. There are additional cards, yes, but they are kept as reserve in France, in case they are needed.
    Preliminary reports actually say that the organisation is not perfect, but not too bad either. Now whether it’s a game changer for Mali is another matter…

  2. Pingback: What Issues do Malian Voters Care about in the Presidential Election? · Global Voices

  3. Dag Zimen says:

    Hat dies auf Zur gleichen Zeit in … rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

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