Mali: Exchanging One Crisis for Another?

By Louise Arbour and Gilles Yabi

As Mali considers whether to move ahead with a first round of presidential elections on 28 July, Crisis Group president Louise Arbour and West Africa project director Gilles Yabi published an Op-Ed in Le Figaro today, “Au Mali : ne pas rajouter une crise à la crise”, advocating a delay. The English translation of their article is below. See also our recent statement on Mali and our 11 April report.

The window is closing for a delay in the first round of presidential elections in Mali, scheduled for 28 July. The Constitutional Council has validated 28 candidacies and the electoral campaigning began on 7 July. The minister for territorial administration remains convinced that “all the conditions for the unfolding of transparent and credible elections” have been met. He recalled also that his department was in sole charge of the election, a clear message to the national electoral commission (Commission électorale nationale indépendante, or CENI), which has a mandate to supervise elections and, in recent days, has frequently alluded to “imperfections” in the technical preparations for the vote.

A short delay remains the most sensible choice, but it seems less and less likely. If Mali votes on 28 July, the election risks being marred by such technical shortcomings, and with such a low rate of participation, that it could result in the election of a president deprived of the legitimacy necessary to lead a confused and weakened country back onto the road to stability and development. If this unfortunate decision continues to hold, then it becomes necessary to prepare security, political and logistical measures to at least limit the severity of an eventual postelectoral crisis.

Given that hundreds of people have died in postelection violence in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in recent years, many believe an African election can be counted a success if it manages to take place without bloody conflicts. It’s true that Mali does not seem to be running such a high risk, and that is a good thing. And the determination to keep the election date of 28 July was, until the last few weeks, plausibly justified: it helped pile on the necessary pressure to conclude a preliminary peace accord between the transitional government and armed Tuareg groups in the north, and it motivated transition authorities to accelerate their electoral preparations.

But today, the bad reasons outweigh the good:  supposedly it is necessary to vote on 28 July and hang the costs, even if a large number of voters cannot receive their national identification cards in time — even if the administration is not yet present throughout the north of the country — simply because the Malian government has settled on that date, because the transitional government really ought to end, because a questionably elected president would still be better than an interim head of state, because a delay of a few weeks would not significantly improve the quality of the electoral process, because Mali’s partners want elections before they can provide the generous aid they have promised, because France’s president has meanwhile indicated that he won’t tolerate any change in the date of the elections in Mali.

Behind these arguments, some more implicit than others, lies a skepticism about the utility of an electoral process that appears to be a box to be ticked before the political class and international partners can get down to serious business. It’s as though everyone has become convinced that this presidential vote, whether well done, popular, imperfect, very imperfect or disastrous, won’t really make a big difference in the future of Mali.  This belief is not altogether wrong. Even a credible and technically successful election would not suffice to establish Mali’s democracy on a firm foundation, introduce ethics into the practice of public affairs, reconstruct the Malian security services or reconcile the Malian people to each other. But to therefore resign oneself to having an « imperfect » election that could mobilise well under the 36 percent of eligible voters that participated in the last presidential vote (in 2007) is a peculiar way to encourage democracy in Mali.

If Malians, as everyone seems to assume, do indeed vote three weeks from now, everything should be done to prevent an imperfect election from turning into a catastrophic one. The Malian authorities, the United Nations mission for Stabilisation in Mali (MINUSMA, which has only been operational since 1 July), and the French forces of Operation Serval must prepare themselves for the possibility of terrorist attacks during the electoral campaign and on voting day. The remaining three weeks should be used to distribute the maximum possible number of identification cards, inform voters of the exact location of polling stations in order to limit disorder on the day of the vote, and demonstrate convincingly to both voters and candidates that the postelectoral process will be transparent, from the central collecting of ballots to the announcement of preliminary results. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the African Union and the United Nations must work together with Malian authorities towards securing every aspect of the electoral process.

Finally, all of the presidential candidates need to sign on to not just a code of conduct – as they have already done – but a solemn agreement to respect the results of the election, or to contest them exclusively by legal means and accepting any verdict of the Constitutional Court.  The candidates should confirm publicly their acceptance of the well known and easily anticipated shortcomings of the electoral process and prepare themselves to live with the results of an election that will, after all, result in 26 or 27 of them losing.

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