BAMAKO, Mali — Malian voters will head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election meant to press the restart button on what was until last year considered a democratic model in West Africa.
Twenty-seven candidates are vying to lead the country out of its darkest chapter in recent memory. A coup d’état in March 2012 saw the country’s long-serving president deposed five weeks before elections set to choose his successor, as the country’s vast north fell to Al Qaeda-linked rebels.
Only an eleventh-hour intervention by former colonial power France in January spared the rest of the country a similar fate.
In a frantic three-week campaign period, candidates have crisscrossed the country, staging rallies before thousands of supporters.
The capital Bamako is saturated with billboards and flyers bearing the candidates’ faces and slogans. The interim government declared Friday a national holiday to boost distribution rates of the biometric identification, or NINA, cards required to vote.
But less than 24 hours before polls open Sunday morning, the prospects of a credible and inclusive election remain in question.
The timing of the election has been fast-tracked under intense pressure from international donors, namely France. About $4 billion of aid money is blocked until an elected government takes power.
The race to organize the poll has produced countless logistical headaches. The government only started distributing NINA cards to Mali’s more than 6.8 million registered voters a month ago.
Over 500,000 Malians remain displaced after the turmoil in the north — either internally or abroad — according to the latest UN figures. Reports suggest that only a tiny fraction of them will be able to vote.
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Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of young people between the ages of 18 and 21 will also be disenfranchised. The country’s electoral list is based on the country’s 2009 census and therefore does not include most Malians who were not yet of voting age at the time.
Some have called for a delay of the election to allow authorities to resolve these issues.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based NGO, warned earlier this month that the elections could be “marred by such technical shortcomings and with such a low rate of participation, that a new president could be deprived of the legitimacy necessary to lead a confused and weakened country back onto the road to stability and development.”
One of the original presidential candidates, Tiébilé Dramé, dropped out of the race, accusing organizers of “fetishizing” the July 28 date and refusing to entertain any alternatives.
Malian and international officials, however, insist that the country is ready.
The interior ministry told GlobalPost Friday that 85 percent of eligible voters had already retrieved their NINA cards. Officials hope that figure will climb to 90 percent for election day.
“We don’t have concerns about the elections,” said Issago Kampo, the first vice president of Mali’s electoral commission, or CENI. “We hope that the results will be respected.”
Still, no one expects a trouble-free election.
“I think they’re going to muddle through somehow,” said Tobias Koepf, a political scientist who specializes in the Sahel region, a belt of land immediately south of the Sahara. “We can try to make them as good as possible [but] it won’t be perfect.”
Another concern is the northern city of Kidal. There, forces from the MNLA, a nominally secular Tuareg-led separatist group, led the initial rebellion against Malian forces in early 2012. Later they were edged aside by jihadist groups, but have occupid Kidal since French and Chadian forces recaptured it in February.
An accord reached in June between the MNLA and Malian government allowed Malian soldiers and officials to reenter Kidal.
But clashes between Tuaregs, an ethnically Berber nomadic people, and black Malians flared upon the army’s arrival in town, leaving four dead last week. Six election officials were also briefly abducted slightly farther to the north in Tessalit. The Malian government has blamed the MNLA.
The Kidal region accounts for just one-half of one percent of the national electorate, but the symbolism of its participation in the election is perceived as critical.
One of the most pressing issues confronting the next president will be the status of the north, which has experienced repeated Tuareg-led rebellions against the central government in recent decades.
More broadly, the success of the election will be determined by the extent to which Malians embrace the return of the democratic process, says Susanna Wing, a Mali expert at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.
Although Mali’s elections since its transition to democracy in the early 1990s were routinely labeled free and fair, turnout never surpassed 40 percent, the worst rates of any country in the region.
The key question, Wing says, is, “Do Malians rally around this as a uniting moment and a necessary moment given the challenges, or do the divides that we’ve seen over the years get exacerbated by this process being demanded so early?”
A strong turnout Sunday, analysts say, would give the new president an important stamp of legitimacy.
The upheavals of the last year seem to have given Malian democracy a shot in the arm. Despite the logistical hurdles, many observers are predicting a record turnout — some say as high as 60 percent.
In a market in the capital Bamako on Friday, it was impossible to find anyone not planning to vote.
Aissata Sidibé, 27, was one of many who said they would be voting for the first time. The economy, specifically jobs, ranked at the top of her priorities. Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries.
“We’re in a crisis,” she said. “And I think if many of us vote, we can change things.”
Like most of the others in the market, Sidibé plans to vote for Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, a former prime minister and speaker of the national assembly. Keïta is widely considered the frontrunner, though handicapping the race is difficult in the absence of reliable nationwide polling.
Soumaïla Cissé, a former finance minister and chairman of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, is viewed as the other possible winner.
Given the number of candidates, though, it is unlikely that anyone will claim the outright majority in the first round necessary to avoid a runoff two weeks later.
Whoever emerges victorious will face a laundry list of challenges. The security situation in the north remains tenuous. A 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping force is currently moving in to replace French soldiers, most of whom are scheduled to leave by the end of the year. The school system is in desperate need of reform. So is infrastructure, especially in rural areas.
The new president’s most urgent priority might be restoring public confidence in government. The leading candidates are all closely tied to the previous administrations, which were dogged by corruption.
For now, Malians are eager to turn the page on the last 16 months.
“This is like a wound that is open,” said Biba Traoré, 45, as she sold kola nuts in the market. She eagerly flashed an ID card showing her name and year of birth, but was taking no chances with her NINA card ahead of the election.
“I keep that stashed away at home,” she said.