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Updated Mar 30, 2020

Malians voted in a long-delayed parliamentary election on Sunday, barely a day after the country recorded its first COVID-19 death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of jihadists. The vote took place in an insecure envorinment of the war-torn West African country.

 

Election Date: March 29, 2020

 

Political Parties:

Alliance for Democracy in Mali, in coalition with the Pan – African Party for Liberty, Solidarity and Justice (ADEMA–PASJ): First formed on October 25, 1990, from opposition parties opposed to the rule of then-dictator Moussa Traoré, ADEMA–PASJ dominated Mali’s National Assembly up until 2013. The party successfully elected Alpha Oumar Konaré as Mali’s president in 1992 and 1997.

Rally for Mali (RPM): Current ruling party of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, having won a substantial number of seats in the 2013 parliamentary elections. Keïta formed RPM on June 30, 2001, only eight months after he left ADEMA–PASJ due to internal disagreements.

Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD): Another splinter group from ADEMA–PASJ, the URD was formed in June 2003 by Soumaïla Cissé and his supporters. Cissé was designated as ADEMA–PASJ’s presidential candidate for the 2002 elections, but outgoing president Alpha Oumar Konaré backed Amadou Toumani Touré, which was read as a betrayal by Cissé. Regardless, the URD would go on to support President Touré for his 2007 re-elections.

A handful of other parties were listed for Sunday’s vote. National Assembly members are elected using a two-round system for a five-year term.

 

Democracy Under Fire

Global viral pandemic. Endemic terrorist violence. A fragile peace deal hanging in the balance. 

Malians heading to the polls on Sunday, March 29, to fill the 147 seats of the beleaguered country’s National Assembly had a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, Mali’s legislative branch is wallowing in a crisis of legitimacy. Parliamentary voting, originally scheduled for October 28, 2018, was postponed on multiple occasions. In June 2019, with the legislators’ mandate nearly up, Mali hastily adopted a law extending it until May 2020. 

The reason given for this was to grant President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s administration time to ensure “optimal conditions” for efficiently organized elections. Yet Mali’s national security forces continue to suffer losses against rebel militias, organized crime syndicates, and jihadist terror groups. 

 

Electoral officials are seen during the vote counting at a polling station in Bamako on March 29, 2020. Malians headed to the polls on March 29, 2020, for a long-delayed parliamentary election just hours after the country recorded its first COVID-19 coronavirus death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of jihadists. MICHELE CATTANI / AFP
Electoral officials are seen during the vote counting at a polling station in Bamako on March 29, 2020. (Michele Cattani/AFP)

 

A Shaken Government

The violence has not been limited to attacks on soldiers. In March 2019, months before the mandate extension bill was signed, more than 150 Fulani were massacred in the village of Ogossagou by Dogon hunters, who accused the semi-nomadic Fulani herdsmen of having ties to violent jihadists. The massacre followed months of tit-for-tat attacks between Mali’s diverse ethnic groups, exploited and encouraged by terrorist groups and rebel fighters to help expand their ranks and gain influence.

The violence at Ogossagou shocked the conscience of Malians. On April 17, 2019, members of the National Assembly live-streamed a motion of no confidence in the government of then prime minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga, whom they accused of incompetence in reducing inter-ethnic violence. Two days later, before the vote could be held, Maïga’s government resigned. On April 22, 2019, President Keïta appointed former finance minister Boubou Cissé as the new prime minister, with the responsibility of forming a “broad government”.

Already one can see the precarious position of Mali’s legislature. But it is not just a matter of delayed votes and shaky coalitions that plagues Mali’s parliament. Elections are also needed to ensure that key provisions of the 2015 Algiers Accord—a peace deal signed between the government of Mali and two separate coalitions representing rebel groups—are met.

 

Indirectly Voting on Crucial Peace Agreement

At the heart of the Algiers Accord was a concerted effort to address the longstanding economic and social failings that have left Mali’s north perpetually underdeveloped compared with the rest of the country. Mali’s northern region is home primarily to the Tuareg peoples, who have launched four separate rebellions since independence in 1960. Then, as today, the Tuareg (as well as other ethnic groups living in the north, including Moorish Arabs) claim they have been left out of political decision-making affecting their territory.

These frustrations led to the Tuareg Rebellion of 2012, which succeeded in ousting the Malian army from the country’s north. After jihadists co-opted this rebellion to turn the region into a would-be caliphate, France intervened and succeeded in removing Islamist terrorists from the principal cities of the region by late 2013, though violence has hardly abated since then. A handful of Tuareg individuals currently sit in Mali’s National Assembly, but this is still not fair representation. This is the reason President Keïta insisted on holding elections despite the risks.

 

Health Risks from COVID-19, Security Risks from Terrorists

This brings us to the other side of this Catch-22. While parliamentary elections need to go ahead to bolster the legitimacy of the National Assembly and demonstrate Bamako’s commitment to the Algiers Accord, forging ahead poses a grave public health risk, namely exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic. What’s more, polling locations are prime targets for terrorist attacks, which Malian security forces have not managed to quell ahead of the vote.

Perhaps the starkest example of the government’s inability to guarantee the safety of its people occurred just a few days ago when Soumaïla Cissé, head of the URD opposition party, was abducted while campaigning in the Timbuktu administrative district. 

While no reports of violence striking polling locations was announced on Sunday, the threat of it is likely to have dissuaded voter turnout, which was just barely above 37 percent in 2013’s legislative elections. More pressing are the dangers posed by COVID-19. Late Saturday night, the government of Mali announced the first death linked to the virus. Nonetheless, the URD urged supporters to turn out on Sunday, while other opposition parties urged for another postponement.

Hand-washing kits were distributed to polling locations around the countryside, and precincts in Bamako were provided with face masks and hand sanitizer. As the virus continues to spread throughout West Africa, Mali is poorly equipped to handle a large outbreak. The country has only twenty ventilators countrywide for a population of 19 million, and large swaths of its territory have little to no government authority present, making it that much harder to track and contain infections. More than 200,000 Malians displaced by ongoing violence were also unable to vote in addition to being at greater risk of contracting the virus.

With the first round of voting concluded, a second round is scheduled to take place on April 19. Despite the risks, international experts and observers hope that the elections will finally give Mali a chance to break out of its cycles of violence that have plagued it since 2012. A new parliament will be able to enact with greater authority a number of the reforms laid out in the Algiers Accord, including decentralization and integration of former rebels into the police and army, which has already been under way, albeit slowly.

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