Less than 24 hours before the Malian presidential of July 29, 2018, the socio-political climate remains tense, even worse than the situation before the previous presidential elections of 2013. This uneasy state of affairs adds to the deteriorating security situation in the central and northern regions of Mali where jihadist attacks are taking place. A compromise between political actors is therefore necessary to better address and overcome the serious security challenges that Mali has been confronted with for several years.
Three issues explain the deep divisions within the political class. The first and the most important issue relates to disputes over the integrity of the electoral register. Political opposition parties, including the Union pour la République et la Démocratie (URD) of Soumaïla Cissé, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s main challenger, claim that the electoral register posted online by the government authorities on July 4 does not correspond to the initial register audited by the International Organization of the Francophonie on April 27, 2018. Indeed, the initial electoral register agreed upon last April had 8,000,462 voters, while the one posted online in early July by the government had 8,105,154. The government authorities have rejected reports about the existence of parallel electoral registers and have blamed the problem on technical issues that led to this misunderstanding. This situation raises, rightly or wrongly, suspicions in some political circles of planned electoral fraud. Such fears on the part of opposition parties threaten the credibility of the electoral process. There is an urgent need to address such concerns before the election.
The second issue with the potential to threaten the presidential election of July 29 is the reported dispute between the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and the Ministry of Finance, over the budget for the organization of voting operations. The CENI has only received 2,142 billion CFA francs—out of a budget of nearly 2,992 billion CFA francs—for the supervision of the presidential election. According to the president of CENI, Amadou Ba, the electoral body will have trouble organizing voting operations without the remaining 850 million CFA francs. With the current polarization of political leaders, mismanagement of voting operations could lead to electoral disputes, including the rejection of the outcome of the elections.
The third issue that could negatively affect the holding of elections is the uncertainty caused by insecurity in certain conflict-affected regions of Mali. Of note is the challenge of organizing elections in the central and northern regions of the country, which are under the influence of secessionist and jihadist movements. President Keïta visited the city of Kidal in the north of the country for the first time in five years on July 20 during his electoral campaign under heavy military escort. There are reports referring to the presence of the flag of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the former Tuareg separatist rebellion, at the only place he campaigned in, alluding to the fragile security situation in that part of the country. The city authorities and several associations that attended the meeting did not hesitate to remind President Keïta that he had not fulfilled his campaign promises of 2013, in particular, those relating to the release of political prisoners and the effective restoration of basic services such as the supply of potable water. The remarks by Bakdi Walet Ibrahim, one of the Tuareg leaders, captures the mood of the people of Kidal: “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.”
The issues identified above show that the upcoming elections face many challenges; however, there is still hope that despite the security challenges in the central and the northern regions of the country, elections will be held nationwide. According to reliable reports, voter cards have been distributed to more than seventy percent of eligible citizens. The voter’s enthusiasm to collect their cards is a sign of their positive expectations for the presidential election. This could help reduce the potential for disruption of voting activities by armed groups and jihadists since they will lack support from the population. Also, the presence of international peacekeeping forces in Mali, such as the G5 Sahel and the French Barkhane force will provide support for Malian security forces in protecting voting operations.
In addition, it is hoped that political leaders and opposition parties can reach a post-election compromise over election results to safeguard peace. Indeed, most of the twenty-four candidates in the presidential election—including Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, the incumbent, and Soumaïla Cissé, the opposition leader and main challenger—have been regular contestants in the Malian political scene for decades. Without going as far as predicting the outcome of the presidential election, we can posit that the divided opposition parties will likely provide President Keita with some advantage over the other contestants. However, whichever candidate is elected will need strong support to build legitimacy and establish themselves as an effective facilitator of peace. The newly elected president will also need to successfully negotiate with the many rebel armed groups in the central and northern regions of Mali. There are enough reasons to be hopeful that the upcoming presidential election, despite the tensions surrounding it, will, nonetheless, contribute to the consolidation of peace in Mali.