The Upcoming Malian Legislative Elections
The political process that followed the 2015 Peace agreement in Mali depends on the legitimation associated with elections – even if they are only pro-forma. As the world worries that measures to contain COVID-19 may lead to authoritarian backlash in contemporary democracies, the fact that legislative elections scheduled for this Sunday are going forward seems a counterexample. However, the constraints on the electoral process risk rendering this election just another task on a long checklist, and, ultimately, a farce.
While some governments have decided to delay elections for COVID-19 related reasons, as of this writing Malian president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) has made no move to postpone the legislative elections scheduled for Sunday, 29th March. According to the administration, the risks of an accelerated infection rate as citizens queue to cast their vote does not yet seem to outweigh the costs of further postponing the elections. The elections are overdue already, as they have been suspended repeatedly since 2018. Current members of parliament have been in power since the last 2013 and dissatisfaction with their work is high across all regions. Thus, further delay would be highly unpopular.
In addition, the IBK administration has identified legislative elections as essential to the political reform process laid out in the 2015 Algiers Accords and a necessary follow-up to the 2019 National Inclusive Dialogue. As such, the scheduled elections this Sunday can be considered both an attempt to renew the legitimacy of the national parliament and the current government.
However, the elections will occur in the context of Malian conflict dynamics and the global health crisis. Since the announcement of the first COVID-19 cases, a nightly curfew has been implemented, and the right of assembly been restricted for groups of above 50 participants. More alarming, the leading opposition figure, Soumaïla Cissé, who challenged IBK during the 2013 and 2018 presidential elections, has been kidnapped en route between Sarafere and Koumaïra in central Mali. These recent developments underline the already existing political and security constraints of the elections.
The last-minute announcement of the March election date has come as a surprise for both the signatory parties of the 2015 Bamako Agreement and Mali’s international partners. As a consequence – even if the pandemic were no barrier – there was no prospect for international electoral observation such as was provided for the 2013 legislative elections.
In addition, the historically low voter turnout in Mali is expected to decrease even more in the current context. As 2019 has been registered as the deadliest year for Mali civilians since 2012, the latest UN Security Council report documents rising numbers of civilian deaths and human rights violations as well as an increasing use of improvised explosive devices attacks against national and international forces.
In central regions of Mali, both Mali’s national armed forces (FAMA) and the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali were unable to prevent repeated deadly massacres perpetrated by ethnic self-defense groups. In this security context, elections are unlikely to take place in many parts of the central regions of Mopti and Segou.
In northern Mali, the UN has called the return of the re-constituted Armed Forces to Kidal a “major turning point”. But recent attacks against FAMA, such as last week in Tarkint, underline continued challenges for central state authorities. Further, the implosion of the pro-state Platform coalition in the last year has increased the political and military control of the ex-rebel coalition CMA in the region, including in Ménaka – a former Platform stronghold. CMA’s willingness to cooperate with the government will determine the extent to which elections go forward in the north.
As the 2016 decentralization process which created regions of Ménaka and Taoudéni is not yet operational on all administrative levels, this Sunday’s legislative elections will be based on the current electoral map. This decision has been a major criticism of the CMA as the increase in regions is seen as synonymous with increased representation of the north in Bamako, a key provision of the 2015 Peace Agreement. In comparison, the legislative elections are considered to curtail the number of MPs for the northern region and hence the representation of CMA affiliated candidates in the national assembly.
Heightened security constraints, a new power balance in the North, and the lack of external electoral observation missions already occluded hopes for electoral legitimacy. As COVID-19 cases are likely to follow a similar trend in Mali as in the rest of the world, pre-existing threats to legitimate elections cast a bigger cloud for now.