The West African nation of Mali will hold presidential elections this Sunday, less than seven months after the French military intervened to drive Islamist rebels linked to Al Qaeda in the country’s north.
As Malians prepare to go to the polls, however, a chaotic voter-registration process and lingering security concerns call into question whether the elections will be truly free and fair.
Mali’s interim government and the international community are betting that expedited elections that they have both pushed will help Mali move forward after nearly 18 months of instability.
Speaking to reporters in Paris earlier this month, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon went so far as to say, “The results, even if the election is imperfect, must be respected by all parties.”
With Mali and the broader Sahel increasingly viewed as a place where Al Qaeda and its affiliates, as well as drug traffickers, may try to take advantage of porous borders and weak states, Mali stands as a test case for the international community’s commitment to the region.
Yet many commentators fear that rushed elections risk further destabilizing an already divided nation, and worry that the international community, particularly France and the United States, are favoring elections and the appearance of democracy over stability and good governance.
One Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the elections as a “calculated gamble,” suggesting that delaying the vote would “do little to fix any of the current problems and would potentially pave the way for new ones.”
In June, the International Crisis Group issued a report calling for a short delay of no more than three months. The report warned that July elections “would likely be shambolic,” with eligible voters likely to protest their inability to cast ballots.
“The vote’s results, would almost certainly be challenged,” the report continued, as “losers would have plenty of ammunition to contest the results” in the event of a disorderly vote.
Much of the current debate over the election process centers on biometric identification cards known by their local acronym, NINA, that voters will bring to the polls to gain access.
The shiny blue and yellow cards – issued free of charge and valid for 10 years – also double as a national ID. They are replete with a digital photo of the voter and an image of the voters’s fingerprint (which makes the process “biometric”). Cards are issued as a safeguard against fraud – though in Mali, where supporting technology is not always in place, biometric voting comes with numerous problems including accuracy and excluding legitimate voters who for whatever reason don’t have the IDs.
Though the 6.8 million NINA cards arrived here only in June, Mali’s electoral commission maintains that nearly 82 percent of the cards have been distributed.
Some outside analysts, citing state capacity, various logistical challenges, and allegations of fraud, insist the number distributed is much lower.
Yet representatives from several international organizations involved in implementing and monitoring the elections told the Monitor they think the 82 percent figure is likely correct.
In the wealthy "ACI 2000" neighborhood of Mali’s capital, Bamako, Abdoulaye Dicko holds up an old, frayed ID card with a warped photo. “I hope this will be enough,” he says, “But I don’t know. I have no NINA.”
Mr. Dicko is an internally displaced person, or IDP, who fled the northern city of Timbuktu with his two wives and six children after it fell to rebel fighters in April 2012.
Though they have sought refuge in one of Bamako’s most affluent areas, they are ostensibly squatters in an unfinished construction project. They rely on extended family, one-off day jobs and on intermittent humanitarian assistance to get by. Family members say they are unsure if they are officially registered as displaced persons or not.
Like many IDPs interviewed in Bamako, Mr. Dicko knows he is unlikely to be able to vote unless he procures his NINA card, but he says he has no idea where his new ID is located. He believes his card is likely hundreds of miles away, stored somewhere in an office in Timbuktu.
For the estimated 173,000 refugees who fled the January fighting to neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, the likelihood of participation is even lower.
According to a press release by the United Nations High Commissioner For Refugees, or UNHCR, only about half the refugees who have volunteered to take part in the election have been found in the election database. Few NINA cards have been provided them. For example, as of July 23, only 32 NINA cards had been delivered to Burkina Faso, where 3,504 refugees are registered.
Similar problems have been reported by members of the Malian diaspora throughout North America, Europe, and other parts of Africa.
The 'RAVEC' gap
The new biometric system has also come under criticism for being predicated on an incomplete electoral list. The electoral database, known as RAVEC, is based on a 2009 census, potentially rendering as many as 350,000 voters who turned 18 since 2009 ineligible to vote.
Malian government officials concede that those who fall within the “RAVEC gap” will likely be turned away at the polls, despite the fact that the Malian constitution grants them the right to vote.
Security in Mali’s recently liberated north also remains a concern. Though French and UN troops maintain a presence there, Mali as a stable nation and state is only just beginning to be restored.
In the region of Kidal, the government enjoys a tenuous truce with ethnic Tuareg rebels who gained control of the city in the wake of French intervention. But recent political and ethnic riots have turned violent, and a spate of kidnappings, including of election officials in the remote town of Tessalit, has prompted commentators to question whether polls can even be held in Kidal.
Though Mali was once considered a model democracy before a March 2012 coup toppled its twice-elected president, turnout for a presidential poll has never exceeded 40 percent.
Election officials and their international counterparts are nonetheless cautiously optimistic, despite the enormous logistical challenges ahead, with some predicting that voter turnout might exceed that of past elections.