Mali’s risky elections: Balancing donor priorities and local realities

July 18, 2013, 9:52 p.m.

Bruce Whitehouse Why Mali needs elections In late January 2013, two weeks after French troops arrived in Mali to counter advancing Islamist rebels, Mali’s National Assembly unanimously adopted a “roadmap for transition” charting a course for the country’s return to stability and democratic rule. This plan aimed to put an end to the crisis that began in early 2012, when a separatist rebellion and military coup paved the way for the occupation of the country’s northern regions by Islamist forces. The roadmap called for presidential elections (scuttled in the wake of the 2012 coup) to be held by the end of July, then just six months away.[i] The vote is now scheduled for July 28. Mali’s need for a legitimate government has never been greater. Despite twenty years of formal democratic rule, the institutions of the Malian state have become hollow shells, eroded by venality and nepotism.[ii] Having succeeded the junta in April 2012 (at the insistence of Mali’s donors and West African neighbors), the civilian government of Interim President Dioncounda Traoré has proved too feeble to restore state power, and  lacks the popular mandate to make the tough decisions required to address the country’s present crisis. As of this writing, five months since French forces ousted Islamist fighters from northern Mali, central government administration has yet to return to the liberated areas, and residents of cities like Timbuktu and Gao rely on international humanitarian aid for their basic needs.[iii] The Malian ship of state remains rudderless, drifting in perilous waters. Despite their rising discontent with the practice of governance in their country over the years, Malians remain overwhelmingly committed to democratic ideals and institutions—at least in the abstract. Surveys have found consistently high attachment to elections (82 per cent 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,” Malian respondents identified elections more frequently than any alternative.[iv] It is far from certain, however, that elections this month can actually move Mali out of its present impasse. The conditions for free, fair and representative voting are not yet in place, and a botched poll on July 28 could further destabilize the country. The question of timing The push for a July vote was initiated by donor governments, particularly France and the United States. The US government has been calling for new elections in Mali for several months. Federal legislation bars the Obama administration from providing any aid other than humanitarian assistance to unelected regimes that have supplanted elected predecessors. Since the coup that ousted President Amadou Touré last March, the US has thus been unable to support the Malian military or provide development aid. Anxious to re-establish its longstanding cooperation with the Malian government and contain Islamist influence in the region, US officials were already pressing for elections in mid-2012 while 60 percent of Mali’s territory was under rebel occupation.[v] French President François Hollande has spoken of his “unyielding” insistence on the July poll date. According to his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, “There must be elections in July, because there must be a new democratic legitimacy.”[vi] Yet the donors’ electoral schedule faces numerous obstacles on the ground in Mali. Among them are persistent security threats in the north, especially the town of Kidal. The MNLA (Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad), a separatist rebel group dominated by ethnic Tuareg nomads, has a strong presence there and adamantly opposes central government authority there. Malian troops and administrators only returned to Kidal earlier this month, more than a year after they abandoned the town, and so far only in symbolic numbers. Despite a peace accord allowing the government to organize elections in Kidal under international supervision, tensions are rife as separatist protestors clash with loyalists.[vii] Although the Kidal region is home to fewer than 70,000 people—less than one percent of the national population—the exclusion of its residents from voting, whether due to insecurity or insufficient administrative preparation, could severely damage the election’s credibility. At the national level, there have been problems with the distribution of new biometric ID cards to seven million voters. Even before distribution began, according to the head of Mali’s electoral commission, the production of these IDs was “way behind schedule.”[viii] Significant numbers of would-be voters, particularly those in the north and in rural areas of the south, plus hundreds of thousands of citizens displaced by fighting, may find themselves unable to cast ballots because they have not received ID cards. Moreover, seasonal factors promise to beleaguer poll preparation and turnout. July 28 falls not only in the fasting month of Ramadan this year, but also in the middle of the rainy season, when rural populations are preoccupied with agricultural activity and many roads are impassable. Mali’s previous elections have taken place in April and May, before the rains begin; until this year, no Malian government has ever attempted to organize an election in July. In a country where voter turnout has always fallen below forty percent, added barriers to voter participation are highly unnecessary.[ix] Thus while elections are imperative to establish a new, effective regime in Mali, the timetable imposed by donors flies in the face of crucial realities that threaten to disrupt the electoral process. Some Malian presidential candidates have consequently filed suit in the country’s constitutional court to delay the vote, claiming that the lack of state preparation in Kidal violates the requirements of universal suffrage.[x] Foreign observers including the International Crisis Group, the Open Society Initiative for West Africa, and The Washington Post editorial board have called on Malian and French authorities to give the election more time.[xi] So far, Interim President Traoré has reiterated his support for the July 28 date. Campaigning officially began earlier this month, and Mali’s elections may have passed the point of no return. Conclusion: Assessing the risks Events on the ground can still interrupt Mali’s rush to elections. The constitutional court could rule in favor of the candidates who filed suit, although this appears unlikely. More probable are renewed troubles in Kidal, such as an outbreak of violence or an organizational failure by the government which would render voting there impossible.[xii] Even if the election is conducted smoothly in the country’s eight other regions, a botched or aborted vote in Kidal would invalidate the entire endeavor in the eyes of many Malians, for whom Kidal remains an important symbol of Mali’s territorial integrity despite the tiny size of the region’s population.[xiii] In light of the challenges discussed above, it is evident why some scholars who study post-conflict transitions have identified premature elections as a threat to security. The combination of “early election and inconclusive civil war outcomes creates exactly the conditions that make elections especially dangerous,” write Dawn Brancati and Jack Snyder.[xiv] The fact that Mali’s armed forces proved unable to defeat the rebel threat on the battlefield might thus spark a return to violence if elections occur before conditions on the ground are ripe. It is true that the Malian case differs a great deal from those typically discussed in the post-conflict literature: unlike in Angola, Liberia or Afghanistan, for example, political allegiance and voting behaviour in Mali have not generally formed along ethnic lines, while armed groups such as the MNLA have sought to break away from the Malian state rather than capture it. Nonetheless, the precedent of hasty post-conflict elections spurring renewed fighting in Africa and elsewhere offers a note of caution with respect to Mali’s present situation. Winrich Kühne identifies the minimal conditions for holding elections in countries recovering from conflict as security, sufficient administrative and communications infrastructure, and a functioning system of justice and law enforcement.[xv] In each of these areas, Malian authorities face extreme hurdles. Not only must they assure the safety of voters, campaign workers, and ordinary citizens, they must organise the election in a competent and transparent manner, and present their government as an effective arbiter for any disputes that may arise over the election’s outcome. The coming weeks will reveal whether the donors’ strategy—pressuring a weak government to pursue an accelerated path to elections—will lead to a new government enjoying popular legitimacy, or to an even weaker government and a more deeply fractured society.

[i] « Mali: les députés votent à l’unanimité la feuille de route pour la transition », Radio France International, January 30, 2013, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20130129-mali-deputes-ont-vote-unanimite-feuille-route-transition

[ii] Bruce Whitehouse, “What Went Wrong in Mali?” London Review of Books, August 30, 2012, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n16/bruce-whitehouse/what-went-wrong-in-mali

[iii] “Islamist insurgency in Mali casts long shadow over Timbuktu,” The Guardian, July 1, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2013/jul/01/islamist-insurgency-mali-timbuktu

[v] Shaun Tandon, “US urges elections in Mali, sees foreign extremists,” AFP, June 29, 2012, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jogEpyANqNZApswXyNMBayZ4NEYQ?docId=CNG.00ee1deba3fa516585090e48a131e40f.101

[vi] Reuters, “Analysis: Mali insurgency endangers French pull-out plan,” April 3, 2013, http://news.yahoo.com/analysis-mali-insurgency-endangers-french-pull-plan-120204288.html

[vii] Serge Daniel, “Two civilians wounded in northern Mali rebel stronghold,” July 9, 2013, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2013/07/09/two-civilians-wounded-in-northern-mali-rebel-stronghold/

[viii] AFP, “Mali election commission casts doubt on July 28 poll,” June 28, 2013, http://www.capitalfm.co.ke/news/2013/06/mali-election-commission-casts-doubt-on-july-28-poll/

[ix] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, “Voter turnout data for Mali,” http://www.idea.int/vt/countryview.cfm?CountryCode=ML

[x] Radio France International, “Mali: Des candidats à la présidentielle saisissent la Cour constitutionnelle pour reporter le scrutin,” July 9, 2013, http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20130709-mali-candidats-presidentielle-saisissent-cour-constitutionnelle-reporter-le-scrutin

[xi] International Crisis Group, “Managing Mali’s elections: a short delay would pay long-term dividends,” June 26, 2013, http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/publication-type/media-releases/2013/africa/managing-malis-elections.aspx; Open Society Initiative of West Africa, “The elections in Mali: Why they must be postponed,” July 10, 2013, http://osiwa.org/en/portal/newsroom/708/The-Elections-in-Mali-Why-they-must-be-postponed.htm; The Washington Post, “Mali shouldn’t rush its elections,” July 8, 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mali-elections-shouldnt-be-rushed/2013/07/08/c08235ce-e805-11e2-aa9f-c03a72e2d342_story.html

[xii] AFP, “Mali : à peine arrivé, le gouverneur de Kidal contraint de faire demi-tour,” July 12, 2013, http://www.jeuneafrique.com/Article/ARTJAWEB20130712085150/

[xiii] Bruce Whitehouse, “Accord and Discord in Mali,” June 19, 2013, http://bridgesfrombamako.com/2013/06/19/accord-and-discord-in-mali/

[xiv] “Rushing to the Polls: The Causes of Premature Postconflict Elections,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 55(3): 469-492 (2011), p. 485; see also Susan D. Hyde, “Conflict, Elections, and International Pressure,” in J. Joseph Hewitt, Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Ted Robert Gurr (eds), Peace and Conflict 2012, Paradigm Publishers, pp. 109-120.

[xv] “The Role of Elections in Emerging Democracies and Post-Conflict Countries: Key Issues, Lessons Learned and Dilemmas,” Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 2010,  http://library.fes.de/pdf-files/iez/07416.pdf.

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