27 Jul 2013

Mali: dangers of a rushed election

Now here’s an obscure Trivial Pursuit question: what’s the highest turnout ever in a Presidential election in Mali? Before you tell me that you really don’t care, let me explain why it’s so important – we’re talking about war and peace, rebellion or unity, in fact, life or death.

In all elections, a low turnout means the elected government lacks legitimacy. In Mali, where the elected government was overthrown in a coup in 2012, the north was split from the south by two rebellions and the country is only held together by French intervention and UN peacekeepers, a strong, elected government is essential.

But, under pressure from donors who think elections=democracy, Mali’s poll on Sunday is premature and badly organised and may produce a government too weak to put the country back together again.

For a start, it’s Ramadan so many Malians are sleeping for much of the day. It’s also the rainy season so others are planting, and the roads in rural areas are frequently impassable. Half a million Malians have fled to neighbouring countries, but the biometric electoral cards you need to vote haven’t been distributed in the refugee camps. Another quarter of a million who’ve been displaced within the country also couldn’t get voting cards, and even those who remain in their home areas have struggled.  There just wasn’t enough time for the authorities in this impoverished state to organise everything necessary.

Bruce Whitehouse, whose blog Bridges from Bamako is an excellent source on Mali, writes: “Malian and UN officials keep saying this election won’t be perfect, which is a little like saying that a Metallica concert won’t be quiet.”

Tiebile Drame, who dropped out of the presidential race last week, told me: “It is totally mad to continue this process.”
He has recently negotiated peace with the people of Kidal in the far north of Mali, the only city with an almost 100 per cent Tuareg population.

When the French intervened in January, they kept the Malian army out of Kidal because they feared violence and retribution. Many black Malians in the military want to take revenge, because Tuareg officers deserted in 2012 and started a secessionist rebellion.

Tiebile Drame negotiated with Tuareg leaders to allow the Malian state back into Kidal peacefully, on condition that the people of Kidal would participate in the ballot. Then, with a new and legitimate government in power, real negotiations on the situation of the Tuareg and of northern Mali, could commence.

But they haven’t managed to register voters in Kidal because there just hasn’t been enough time. Instead of postponing, they’re pressing ahead. As a result, election officers have been kidnapped and violence has flared.

Why the rush? The donors want to distribute US$4m in aid but say they can’t do it until a “democratic” government is in office.

The French, seeking to justify their intervention, are particularly keen to push ahead with Laurent Fabius, French Foreign Minister, asserting that the election will be plenty good enough. “I didn’t know he’d been appointed director of elections in Mali,” said Tiebile Drame.

Ordinary Malians list the cost of living, corruption, law and order and unemployment as their primary concerns. But a new government must also reunite and rebuild the country, as well as gain full control over a restive military. The danger is that if people in the north, especially the Tuareg, feel excluded from the process, they may start a new rebellion.

I haven’t listed the candidates for you, because in a sense, that’s the least of Mali’s problems. All 27 of them come from Mali’s southern elite, based in the capital, Bamako. Polls suggest that none can win on the first round, so there’s likely to be a run off on 11 August. If one does win, supporters of the others may suspect rigging. For the new government to have legitimacy, there needs to be a credible process and a decent turn out.

I think if something like 40 per cent of the country voted, maybe that would be enough. But with all the factors outlined above, it’s unlikely. Which brings me back to my Trivial Pursuit question. The 2002 presidential elections were held at a time when Malians were enthusiastic about democracy, the rains hadn’t started, it wasn’t Ramadan, voters were in their home areas and the state fully controlled the north.

It was the highest turnout ever: 38.31 per cent.

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