Elections in Mali: Can Democracy Endure?

Voters in Mali headed to the polls on Sunday in an election overshadowed by kidnapping, ransacked polling stations and the Covid-19 pandemic. This has raised serious concerns about the future of democracy in the West-African country.

Despite calls from opposition parties to abandon the vote, President Keita on 25th March insisted that the elections must go ahead on the basis that “they were essential for Mali to head towards peace and national dialogue”.

The vote was expected to see 147 new MPs elected to the national assembly in the first parliamentary election since 2013, when President Keita’s party had won a decisive majority.

The election was long overdue, having been put off in 2018 and 2019, amid security concerns in the war-torn African state. Since 2012, the military has been fighting rebels in the north and central regions. 

Nevertheless, fears about security were magnified in the run up to the poll, with ballot stations opening just days after the leader of the opposition party, Soumaila Cissé was kidnapped by suspected Islamist militants. The 70-year-old, who had polled second in three presidential elections was abducted whilst out on campaign in central Mali.

 On Saturday evening, Mali’s first Covid-19 death was also confirmed, with infections rising to 18. Although small in relation to the pandemic in Europe, concerns have been building that Mali’s impoverished health care system would be unable to cope with mass outbreaks of the virus, a problem coupled with the fact that swathes of the population live in dessert regions of the country, outside of state control.  

Turnout was at little as 7 percent, far less than would be expected in a functioning democracy

Observers noted that the published measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in polling stations left much to be desired. There were also more serious reports of kidnappings of village chiefs, looted polling stations and death threats. 

It is unsurprising, therefore, that many voters were put off voting. In the North, around 200,000 people, displaced by the rebel fighting, were also effectively denied the chance to go to the polls because “no mechanism had been established” for them to do so. At midday on Sunday, President Keita admitted that the turnout was as little as 7 percent, far less than would be expected in a functioning democracy.

The March 2020 elections have cast a shadow over the future of democracy in Mali and are the climax of a war in the country that has seriously damaged its reputation as one of the most stable and successful democracies in Africa.   

However, some experts believe the elections were necessary, suggesting the creation of a new parliament, however undemocratically elected, might renew the impetus for reform in Mali and pull the country out of its downward spiral of violence and anti-democratic politics.  In other words, it could be a price worth paying for a brighter future. There is hope, for example, that the assembly will be able to legalise the 2015 peace agreement negotiated between the central government and several armed groups in the North.

Image: Mission de l’ONU au Mali – UN Mission in Mali via Creative Commons

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