Elections in Mali have largely been violence-free and deemed credible by domestic and international stakeholders. At the same time, a short-lived military coup d’état and conflict in the northern half of the country between the Tuareg rebels and Islamist militias are factors that create vulnerabilities for electoral violence in 2018 when Malians are scheduled to cast ballots for president in July and parliament in November.
The recent conflicts can be traced back to 2012. In March of that year, just weeks before the end of President Amadou Touman Touré’s term of office, a coup d’état was led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. In April, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) brokered a political agreement between the mutineers and the government and recognized a transitional government led by President Dioncouda Traoré with presidential and parliamentary elections to be held within 12 months.
While these conflicts were playing out, there was an emerging independence revolt by the traditionally nomadic Tuareg rebels in an area of northern Mali known as Azawad. Their insurgent force, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), has led the rebellion. The history of Tuareg independence revolts extends back to 1916. Another Islamist insurgent group, Ansar Dine, temporarily joined the fighting against the government and overran northern Mali’s three largest cities – Kidal, Gao, and Timbuktu. However, there were competing visions between these two groups about the future Azawad end-state, with the MNLA seeking general independence goals, whereas the Ansar Dine seeking to establish an Islamic state. The divisions between these two insurgent groups create further instability in the security environment and have evolved into an adversarial relationship.
While a United Nations (UN) military intervention led by French and African troops ousted the insurgents from their strongholds in the north, insurgent groups remain active in the region. The MNLA agreed to a peace arrangement with the government. The first round of the presidential election was conducted on July 28 2013, a few months later than the ECOWAS agreement stipulated. Voters had the opportunity to choose from 27 candidates, an indicator of both political participation and political fragmentation in the polity.
With the security presence of UN Peacekeeping, voting did take place in the north. However, another Al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, posted social media threats about attacking polling stations. Just prior to the voting, there were also racially-based disturbances in the north where Tuareg youth attacked the vehicles and homes of black residents. Nevertheless, observers noted that the elections were largely peaceful, turnout was high, and administration was acceptable. Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected president.
However, after an exchange of fire with government forces, the MNLA withdrew from the peace accords and resumed its insurgency. In November 2016 local elections, ballot boxes were burned and one candidate was kidnapped. These elections were conducted in the north to fill posts which had been left vacant as a result of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion and the disruption in local governance which this caused. Some boycotted these elections because they asserted that the security environment was not suitable and many residents of the north were displaced into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. The Tuareg protested against the holding of the election with activities such as women’s street marches. Balloting was cancelled in several districts for security reasons. The opposition Union for the Republic and Democracy claimed that fraud in election preparations biased the process in favor of the incumbent party, the Rally for Mali.
In 2018, the Rally for Mali, Union for the Republic and Democracy, and the Alliance for Democracy in Mali are the likely three strongest political parties, as indicated by their numbers in parliament, at 66, 17, and 16 respectively. The Electoral Integrity Project’s 2016 ratings of Mali posts the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Index at 53 or moderate. Its weakest rating was for Voter Registration at 29 and its strongest was for the Vote Count at 69. The election authorities were rated at 58.
This history presents a pivotal electoral security landscape with both peaceful and conflictive electoral scenarios capable of being constructed. The peaceful scenario is supported by the generally peaceful conduct of elections in the past, the recent local election experience in the north notwithstanding. Electoral integrity seems to be in positive territory.
Elections in Mali have been heavily monitored by the it international community, including ECOWAS, the European Union, and international NGOs such as the International Republican Institute, The Carter Center, and the National Democratic Institute providing assistance to domestic observer groups such as the Appui au Processus Electoral au Mali. Their presence can be leveraged to promote peaceful elections or even offer Alternative Dispute Resolution if required. Additionally, the UN peacekeepers will play a critical role in the physical security of election. However, the mandate of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINSUMA) is scheduled on expired on June 30, 2017 and will require renewal.
However, in the conflictive scenario, the president has recently appointed what is described as a new “loyalist” cabinet, a signal seen by some as a hardening of incumbent efforts to obtain re-election. As a result, the tension among political parties should be monitored for its potential for conflict. And, the northern insurgencies remain a direct and indirect security threat in their areas of operation. These groups include the Tuareg rebels through the MNLA, and the Islamist insurgent groups identified above. Their direct threat is through attacks on election activities, facilities, and stakeholders. Their indirect threat is to create an atmosphere of intimidation which dampens voter turnout in those areas. Racially-based incidents in the north cannot be ruled out.
And, youth movements are emerging and employing street protests to press grievances against the government. For example, in 2012, youth clashed with police protesting against the installation of former fighters as local government officials until elections could be conducted. Also in 2012, the group Les Sofas de la Republique was created which fostered dialogue between pro-coup and anti-coup stakeholders. Following the 2015 peace accord, youth groups joined with other organizations in support of the implementation of the Algiers Peace Agreement. And, recently a group has been formed call C’est Trop, or We’ve Had Enough, to protest corruption and injustice in President Keita’s administration.