Managing Mali’s elections: a short delay would pay long-term dividends
26 Jun 2013
The recent agreement between the government and two rebel Tuareg groups is a positive step, but Mali’s politicians should now consider delaying presidential elections, the first round of which is currently scheduled for 28 July. This would allow authorities adequate time to prepare and ensure that those citizens who wish to vote can do so. The delay should be short – no more than three months – with timelines for outstanding tasks clearly defined. Pressing ahead within the existing timeline could lead to a chaotic and contested vote and a new president without the legitimacy essential for the country’s recovery. International partners should make it clear that setting the democratic bar too low is not a sustainable strategy, but rather one that would risk future instability the country can ill-afford.
In the last few days, interim President Dioncounda Traoré has received representatives from the main political parties to discuss the “Preliminary Agreement” his government signed last week in Ouagadougou with two principal armed groups in the north, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (known by their French acronyms MNLA and HCUA). The agreement should allow polls to be held across the country. It envisages the quick re-deployment of the Malian government and its security forces to Kidal, the northern-most region currently controlled by the Tuareg rebels but who have agreed to place their forces in a cantonment.
Exactly what the party representatives and president agreed during their consultations in Bamako is unclear, but they should now consider a short delay in presidential elections. Setting an ambitious date helped move along the Ouagadougou talks and accelerated steps toward elections. But despite the remarkable efforts of staff in the Ministry of the Territorial Administration – the entity responsible for organising elections – preparations for the vote still lag behind schedule.
New ID cards have arrived in Bamako, and their delivery across the vast country will start soon, but deadlines are simply too tight for their distribution in all regions ahead of the polls. Experts fear that the majority of the 6.9 million registered voters would not receive their cards in time. They cannot vote without them, which could lead to frustration and possibly violence. Some of those that obtain cards may have moved since they registered and may lack time to request that their names be transferred, before voter lists are finalised. Prefects, the ministry staff overseeing elections in the districts, have barely returned to their offices in much of the north, further complicating preparations. Mali already has a troubled electoral history: in 2002 nearly one ballot out of four was cancelled; in 2007 some 40 per cent of voters did not receive their cards.
An election at the end of July, therefore, would likely be shambolic, with many eligible citizens protesting inability to cast ballots. The vote’s results would almost certainly be challenged. The leading candidates in the presidential election all believe today that they can win, even if the vote is disorderly – indeed some may feel they would benefit from a low turnout or one in which some regions have significantly higher participation than others. But in the aftermath of a flawed first round, losers would have plenty of ammunition to contest results. Little in Mali’s electoral history suggests the bodies responsible for resolving such disputes would be able to do so in a manner acceptable to all.
Specifically, a delay of no more than three months would give the Malian authorities time to:
- complete the distribution of new ID cards to all registered voters;
- re-deploy all district officers (prefects and sub-prefects) on a permanent basis and give them the necessary resources and time to restore security and prepare for the election;
- extend the period for the internally displaced to provide their current location to the administrative committees in charge of establishing the final voter lists; and
- complete special electoral lists for refugees in the camps in neighbouring countries and deter potential pressures and threats directed against them.
A short postponement would also give the national electoral commission (CENI), which has expressed reservations on the calendar, the necessary time to closely supervise the electoral process, its legally-mandated role. It would allow media and civil society organisations to better monitor the electoral campaign and preparations for the vote and play a key role in ensuring transparency – through accepted observation both at local voting stations and national tabulation centres – during the sensitive period of collation and publication of results, much as Senegalese civil society did during the 2012 presidential elections. Waiting until after the rainy season, which impedes movements and coincides with heavy farming activities, would also allow more voters in rural areas to cast their ballots. Finally, the Security Council confirmed only last Tuesday, 25 June, the deployment of the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) as of 1 July, and a short postponement would give the mission enough time to:
- provide the Malian authorities appropriate logistical and technical assistance and effective security arrangements as mandated by UN Security Council Resolution 2100; and
- support the Malian authorities in anticipating sensitive immediate post-electoral challenges, including securing and conveying the polling stations’ official minutes; and deterring, or at least managing, any post-electoral violence.
The roots of Mali’s recent crisis run much deeper than flawed elections. Fixing its democracy, rebuilding its politics and military and reconciling its society will require more than a credible vote. But the presidential election is a vital first step, and it must be a step in the right direction. Mali’s politicians and international partners must do everything possible to prevent the problems of the past from resurfacing. Pressing ahead with the 28 July date would risk an election so technically deficient, and with such a low turnout, that it would fail to bestow sufficient legitimacy on the new president and could feed a new cycle of instability. Better a short delay for technical reasons – no more than what is strictly necessary and certainly no more than three months – that allows authorities to prepare properly and gives more Malians the opportunity to vote.