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Mali Counts Votes From Referendum Expected Pave Way to Elections

A voter casts his ballot in a referendum in Bamako, Mali, June 18, 2023.
A voter casts his ballot in a referendum in Bamako, Mali, June 18, 2023.

Mali started counting votes on Sunday from a constitutional referendum that the ruling military junta and regional powers have said will pave the way to elections and a return to civilian rule.

The junta, which seized power in coups in 2020 and 2021, promised to hold the plebiscite as part of a transition to democracy, under pressure from West African regional bloc the Economic Community of West African States. Provisional results are expected by Tuesday.

Some of the proposed clauses in the new constitution drafted by the transitional council are contentious, with proponents saying they would strengthen fragile political institutions and opponents saying they would give too much power to the president.

But regional bodies and the United Nations see the referendum itself as an important test of the junta's willingness to stick to the transition and hold a nationwide democratic process, particularly at a time when Islamist militants are stepping up attacks.

"With this project, we are betting on the future of our state, the restoration of its authority, and the regained trust between institutions and citizens," interim president Colonel Assimi Goita said in a televised speech on Friday.

The draft includes updates that have been proposed in past failed efforts to revise the constitution, including the creation of a second parliamentary chamber to boost representation from across Mali.

The proposed establishment of a separate court of auditors for state spending will bring Mali in line with a directive from the West African Economic and Monetary Union from 2000.

But some opposition parties, pro-democracy groups and campaigners for the 'No' vote say non-elected authorities such as the junta have no right to oversee such a substantial constitutional overhaul.

"I am for a revision of the constitution but not this referendum. The legitimacy of the actors, the process ...I think we could have done better," lawyer Fousseini Ag Yehia said in the capital Bamako on Saturday.

Northern Mali armed groups that signed a 2015 peace deal, which has been shaky since the junta took power, had called for a boycott of the referendum saying the process was "not sufficiently inclusive."

Ahmoudane Ag Ikmasse a former member of parliament for the northern town of Kidal, told Reuters that no voting took place there on Sunday.

Ould Mohamed Ramadane, a spokesman for the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the northern Tuareg-led rebel alliance, said voting only took place in a few places with a high concentration of Malian armed forces, such as Timbuktu, Gao and Menaka.

Large areas of northern Mali are controlled by militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State as the Sahel nation struggles to find stability since a 2012 Tuareg rebellion.

Mali on Friday demanded the departure of U.N. peacekeepers who have been in the country since 2013, saying the mission was fueling tensions between communities.

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