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July 21, 2013

Mali's Election Campaign in Final Days

by Anne Look

This is the last week of campaigning ahead of Mali’s July 28 presidential election, with 27 presidential candidates crisscrossing the country to rally supporters. Authorities have handed out seven million voter cards in less than a month, and are frantically completing preparations for the ballot. 

This last week before the vote will be a busy one.

Mali is trying to emerge from a year and a half of unprecedented crisis. It started with another Tuareg rebellion, followed by a military coup, followed by an Islamist takeover, followed by a French-led military intervention.

Candidates are all campaigning on pretty much the same platform - making sure this never happens again. They are pledging to fight corruption, build a stronger army, and heal long-standing communal tensions once and for all.

The country’s largest political party has backed a relative unknown, Dramane Dembele.

"Malians must forgive each other today and shake hands for national reconciliation," said Dramane Dembele, ADEMA - PASJ's candidate.

Many Malians blame the crisis on those who governed over the past two decades.

Several of the top candidates, like Modibo Sidibe and Ibrahim Boubabar Keita, are former ministers and prime ministers and long-time fixtures on Mali’s political scene.

However many of the 27 candidates, like Dembele, are playing up their outsider status, something that appears to be resonating with voters.

"Dembele is not known because he has never been in the government and he has never wasted the country's resources. We have never heard of that from him,” said Sokona Sadjan Soumaré, Dembele supporter.

Voter turnout in Mali has been historically low - less than 40 percent. 

This time, there have been the usual big rallies. But candidates have also hit the road and taken to the air to go door to door, town to town, north to south, to mobilize voters.

Election officials are working against a fierce deadline.

Confusion remains about where and how to vote. As of Friday, more than two million voters had yet to pick up their biometric voter cards.

Voters like Gilbert Dembele said it wasn’t for lack of trying.

“This time it was easy, but I couldn’t get my card two weeks ago. There were too many people here the first and second day, so I had to leave,” said Dembele.

There are high hopes for this election, but it is not without risk. One candidate withdrew from the race, saying the country isn’t ready.

Pre-election violence has flared in the formerly rebel-held northern town of Kidal. Hasty preparations and flaws in the voter list could open the way for results there to be contested. 

(Nick Loomis contributed reporting from Bamako.)