Mali has an important election on Sunday. Will it be peaceful?

People look for their names on the electoral list at a polling station Monday in Bamako, Mali. Mali’s presidential polls open Sunday in the first round of voting. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)
People look for their names on the electoral list at a polling station Monday in Bamako, Mali. Mali’s presidential polls open Sunday in the first round of voting. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

On Sunday, the first round of Mali’s presidential election will take place. Tensions are high: Political parties have failed to agree on some fundamental issues that could negatively affect voting operations, and there is growing dissatisfaction over the government’s record on security.

The poor security context and the high polarization of political parties mean the election faces several challenges:

1. Security is a huge concern

Central and northern Mali have been shaken by violence for years, but there has been an uptick in recent months. A U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum report in April warned that armed groups are vying for power in a “vacuum of state authority.”

On Wednesday, just days before the election, the central city of Timbuktu was crippled by armed Arab protesters. In some localities, the lack of security may make it difficult to organize voting operations.

2. Grievances still run high in central and northern Mali

On July 20, under a high military escort, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita visited the city of Kidal in the north of the country for the first time in five years. Keita’s meeting took place in a room in which the flag of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) was flying. This was a reminder of the 2012 Tuareg separatist rebellion, which failed — but effectively brought down the government of former president Amadou Toumani Touré. Keita’s visit suggests that Mali is not yet fully unified and that the central government of Bamako does not have control of the entire national territory.

Indeed, city authorities in Kidal and several associations that attended the meeting did not hesitate to remind Keita that he had not fulfilled his campaign promises of 2013 — in particular, the release of the prisoners and the effective return of basic services such as running water. Bakdi Walet Ibrahim, one of the Tuareg leaders, voiced these complaints: “You ask us to vote for you, but all our men are dead. How do you want people to vote if they are dead? I ask you, Mr. President: Release our prisoners.” These grievances may stifle voter turnout.

3. There is no agreement on the electoral register

Opposition parties, including the URD, led by Soumaila Cïssé, the main challenger to Keita, claim that the July 4 online electoral register does not correspond to the initial electoral register audited by the International Organization of the Francophonie on April 27. The initial electoral register had 8,000,462 voters — while the government’s online register now has 8,105,154 names. Government officials rejected the existence of parallel electoral registers, claiming technical issues led to this misunderstanding. But the situation raises suspicions of electoral fraud — and that threatens the credibility of the electoral process. There is an urgent need to resolve this dispute before the election.

4. Election officials claim the funding may not be enough to ensure adequate voting operations

The dispute between the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and the Finance Ministry over the election budget may affect the actual voting operations. From a budget of nearly 2,992 billion CFA francs, roughly $5.3 million, the CENI received only 2,142 billion CFA francs, roughly $3.8 million, for the supervision of the presidential election. According to CENI President Amadou Ba, organizing voting operations will be difficult because of the shortfall. Poorly managed voting operations could lead to electoral disputes, including the rejection of the outcome of the elections.

Glimmers of hope

There is reason to be optimistic about the fact that voter cards have been distributed to more than 70 percent of the people in northern and central Mali. These voters seem enthusiastic about retrieving their cards — a sign, perhaps, that they expect their concerns to be heard. Moreover, people in these regions usually feel enfranchised. This may help reduce the potential disruption of voting operations by armed groups, which will lack support from the population.

Second, the presence of international armed forces in Mali, including the G5 Sahel and counterterrorism forces under French-supported Operation Barkhane, will be able to support the Malian security forces in securing the voting operations.

Third, there is reason to be hopeful that Mali’s political leaders will reach a compromise to safeguard the peace. Indeed, despite the tense political climate, most of the 24 presidential candidates (including only one woman) have been regulars in the Malian political scene for decades.

Sunday’s vote is the first of two rounds, with the top two candidates facing off on Aug. 12. With the opposition political parties in scattered ranks, the incumbent, Keita, appears to have an electoral advantage.

Whoever is elected, he or she will need strong legitimacy to establish the president as a player of peace and someone able to negotiate successfully with the many rebel armed groups. After years of unrest, the hope is that this high-risk election will, nonetheless, contribute to peace in Mali.

Arsène Brice Bado is the deputy director of the Institute of Dignity and Human Rights at the Center for Research and Action for Peace (CERAP) in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. He researches elections, conflict, forced migration and foreign aid in Africa. Follow him on Twitter at @bricebado.

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