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    Mali Elections Held Amid Concerns of Low Turnout, Journalists' Arrests

    In Mali, which is known for its voter apathy, citizens showed up to the polls in small numbers for legislative elections. A coalition of parties that back recently re-elected President Amadou Toumani Toure is expected to keep a majority of the 147 seats in parliament. Kari Barber reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar that some in the country say the recent arrest of several journalists shows that democracy in Mali, heralded as one of the most stable in West Africa, is under threat.

    Advisor to the Mali government for the 2007 elections, General Wilfried Wesch of Germany visited polling stations to ensure everything is in order. He says turnout at the polls has been even lower than usual.

    "I know it is very quiet in Mali and people do not go out that early in the morning, but I am surprised that hardly anybody is out," he said. "That is a bit, I would not say worrying, because that is up to Mali to decide, but obviously we want to have a high participation."

    Wesch says he is expecting a participation rate lower than the presidential election in April, which had a 36 percent voter turnout.

    Mali's reputation as one of the most free democracies in West Africa is being challenged by the recent arrest and sentencing of a school teacher and five journalists for insulting President Toure. The teacher gave students an assignment to write about an imaginary president's mistress and the five journalists were fined and given suspended sentences for reporting and publishing articles on the matter.

    International press groups have condemned the sentences.

    Also last week, a general strike closed down most of the capital, Bamako, as unions demanded an increase in civil-servant salaries and a decrease in the costs of utilities and food.

    Despite these looming concerns, Wesch says voting is going on in an organized manner and without any disruptions.

    "As far as security is concerned, police are around here, but they are just relaxing. There are no demonstrations, no nothing at all," he added. "On the contrary, it is even too quiet."

    Following the presidential election, opposition parties had threatened to boycott the legislative elections, demanding new voter rolls and registration cards.

    International and Malian observers said the presidential elections were well organized, free and fair.

    Voter Leo Tall says he is worried that with the recent arrests of journalists, the government is beginning to strengthen its grip in its second term and infringing on the freedoms Malians have enjoyed.

    "Mali is a very poor country, but people will tell you there is freedom there," said Tall. "But now, it is very poor and you do not have freedom anymore. That scares people."

    From a polling station in Bamako, civil society activist Jiaba Camara Sidibe Diallo says she is optimistic about the results of this year's presidential and parliamentary elections and the growth of democracy in Mali.

    Sidibe Diallo says she hopes the winning candidates will take into account the needs of the majority of Malians and create programs that encourage development, civic participation and enhance the role of women in society.

    President Toure who is often credited with bringing Mali out of military dictatorship and into democracy, easily won re-election in April with 71 percent of the vote. In his first term, Mr. Toure worked to improve roads and foreign relations in the nation, which is one of the poorest in the world.

    Results of Sunday's election are expected in the coming weeks.

    For candidates who do not win 50 percent of the vote or more, a second round of legislative elections are scheduled to be held July 22.

     

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