Mistrust taints Mali’s polls

While the opposition rejected the results, many lessons can be drawn from Mali’s election.

On 20 August, Mali’s Constitutional Court confirmed the victory of incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, who was elected with 67.16% of the vote. Since the first round of voting didn’t produce a clear winner, Keïta was challenged by Soumaïla Cissé in a second round. Cissé – also Keïta’s opponent in 2013 – scored 32.84% of the vote. While the opposition rejects the results and threatens to challenge them by resuming street protests, many lessons can be drawn from this election.

Similar to the 2013 presidential polls, security was problematic. Despite the government and former rebel armed groups signing a peace and reconciliation agreement in 2015, the security situation remains volatile. Figures provided by the authorities show that violence occurred mainly in central Mali, where of the 8 million registered voters, over 200 000 were unable to vote during the first round and just under 100 000 voters were disenfranchised in the second round.

Insecurity has risen in this part of the country in recent years with attacks by violent extremist groups and the resurgence of local conflict against a backdrop of competition for natural resources, and highlighted by the absence or weakness of the state.

Mali needs a single, permanent and autonomous election management body

Many incidents attributed to extremist groups, including intimidation, the sacking of polling stations and the destruction of electoral material, occurred during both rounds of voting. In the Timbuktu region, the president of a polling station was killed by gunmen on 12 August.

During this election, 24 candidates vied for the highest office, as opposed to 28 in 2013. Many of them presented political programmes and proposals to address the challenges facing Mali. This is a welcome step in efforts for democracy. There was also a ban on political and commercial advertising (including the supply of fabric, T-shirts, kitchen utensils, pens, keyrings and calendars). Nevertheless, the ban and the drafting of political programmes were not enough to nurture policy-driven debates. Neither did they promote policy engagement between party platforms by candidates or their representatives.

Despite a relatively open media landscape, the absence of policy-driven debates remains a weak point in Mali’s electoral process. This deficiency is partly due to an inadequate electoral law that doesn’t require debates between candidates, and the failure of political parties to provide their activists with adequate civic training.

Malian law doesn’t regulate campaign financing and expenses. Added to this is the imbalance in means and media access between the incumbent president and presidential candidates. This lack of strict control widens the gap between candidates and promotes collusion between business and political actors. In such a context, anti-corruption commitments are reduced to mere platitudes.

The absence of policy-driven debates remains a weak point in Mali’s electoral process

The presidential election was a reminder that cash remains key. The three leading candidates in the first round, Keïta, Cissé and Aliou Boubacar Diallo, probably spent the most during campaign season. In a country as vast as Mali (1 241 238 km2) with a poor road network, the movement of candidates to meet the electorate and secure the support of key stakeholders such as traditional authorities depends largely on their financial means.

According to the Constitutional Court, of the over 8 million registered voters, 43.06% voted in the first round and only 34.42% in the second. Low voter participation remains a constant in Mali, especially during presidential elections. It raises questions about the limits of electoral processes as a mechanism for giving leaders legitimacy, especially in a context of growing insecurity.

In addition to insecurity, rainy weather and accusations of fraud and irregularities by numerous candidates against the administration probably depressed voter turnout in the second round. This shows dysfunction in Mali’s political system, and a growing gap between politicians and the electorate.

Compared to 2013, where first and second round voter turnout rates were 48.98% and 45.78% respectively, participation in 2018 was much lower. After a tenuous first term that created the impression that the 2013 election didn’t solve Mali’s many problems, voter apathy needs greater attention.

Similar to 2013, security was problematic during this year’s presidential polls in Mali

Mali has the essential attributes of a formal democracy – presidential, legislative and municipal elections are held regularly; there’s a theoretical separation of powers (executive, legislative and judicial); and freedom of expression is enshrined in the constitution. But the government is unable to meet the needs and expectations of the population, who remain dissatisfied.

The country’s electoral process involves at least four institutions – the Independent National Electoral Commission, the General Delegation for Elections, the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization (MATD) and the Constitutional Court.

The MATD – and thus the government – plays a central role in the system through the material organisation of the vote, the centralisation of provisional results and their proclamation. This generates suspicion and gives the impression that it works at the behest of the power that appointed it.

In addition to the doubts hanging over the ministry, the impartiality of the court, which looks at potential remedies and proclaims the final results, has also been called into question. The speed at which the court reviewed contested results raised additional suspicion, given inconsistencies and procedural irregularities reported by national and international observers in many polling stations in the north and centre.

The lack of trust in the institutions charged with organising elections affects the credibility of both the process and the winner. Looking forward, there is a need for major electoral reforms, including the establishment of a single, permanent and autonomous election management body and the strict regulation of campaign spending. Improving the independence and functioning of the Constitutional Court will also enhance the credibility of the polls.

In the immediate future, the absenteeism that marked this election should impel the elected authority to adopt an inclusive and unifying approach to addressing the country’s challenges, including its peace and national reconciliation projects.

Ibrahim Maïga, Researcher and Khadija Maïga, Junior Fellow, ISS Bamako

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