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Mali Prepares for Election Amid Fears of Low Voter Turnout

  • Anne Look

Electoral materials are stacked in a customs office after shipment from France in Bamako, Mali, June 18 2013.

Electoral materials are stacked in a customs office after shipment from France in Bamako, Mali, June 18 2013.

Mali plans to begin distributing millions of biometric voter cards on Saturday with just one month to go before a July 28 presidential poll. The election aims to turn the page on 17 months of political crisis after a March 2012 military coup and subsequent takeover of the north by armed groups. But there is already concern that frenzied electoral preparations won't be finished in time and that voter participation will be low.

Mali was just weeks away from an April 2012 presidential election when mutinous soldiers overthrew the government.

Now, one military coup, one Islamist takeover of the north, and one French-led regional military intervention later, Mali is getting ready to host a 12,000-member U.N. peacekeeping mission to help stabilize the country.

The international community wants Mali to elect its new president as soon as possible.

In Bamako, there is a certain urgency among potential voters to just get on with it.

"The elections could happen tomorrow and I'd go vote," one voter said, "they need a legitimate government."

The electoral timeline is tight, perhaps too tight according to some analysts. Sloppy preparations could open the way for contested results.

Big questions remain about security for campaigning and voting in the north, as well how the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the conflict are going to vote.

Gilles Yabi, West Africa director for the International Crisis Group, said holding the election on July 28 just for the sake of meeting the deadline is risky.

He said setting the date did help accelerate technical preparations and it got the government and a Tuareg rebel group, the MNLA, to sign an interim peace accord, but now the country needs to evaluate what is left to be done.

"Yes, the country does need a presidential election, but if they mess this up, if there is weak voter participation and if there is a part of the country, the South, that votes and a part, the North, that does not really vote, then that will not help Mali come out of this crisis and deal with its deeper issues of governance," Yabi said.

Voter participation is a key concern. It's a problem that predates the current crisis. Voter turnout in Mali's elections has never reached 40 percent.

In Bamako, registered voters said they do plan to vote but are confused about how to pick up their voter cards.

"You are supposed to go where you had your photo taken for the biometric registration, but that was done back in 2012 before the coup," a female voter noted. "If you can't remember where that is, then you won't get your card." She added that authorities need to make more of an effort to help people because "voters won't make that effort to find their cards themselves."

According to analysts, confusion about procedures is but one obstacle to getting people to the polls July 28. The vote will fall during Ramadan and Mali's rainy season.

Campaigning is set to officially begin on July 7. Fifteen candidates are running for president. There is no clear frontrunner, and local pollsters are already predicting a run-off. The top three candidates all held high-level posts in one or both of the two previous governments.

Malian university professor and political analyst Issa Ndiaye said Malians can expect more of the same. He said there is a feeling that things are going to go back to business as usual, and that might discourage voters. He says for many, the people who were in power over the past 10-20 years are responsible for the current crisis. He says the international community forced these elections on Mali, but many Malians are concerned about other things right now - the economy, paying daily expenses, security - and that might also impact voter turnout.

"What is the point," he asked, "of a poll to elect someone who will not at all be representative even if he is elected by the small number of people who vote?

"The vote will be legal, but it won't be legitimate," he added.

Analysts say the country's next leader will need all the support that he or she can get.