For Mali Elections, It’s a Question of “Legitimacy”

For the first time since the coup that rocked Mali in March 2012, Malians went to the polls to select a new head of state.

The election, which seems to have gone without any major incidents, is a key milestone in the restoration of peace and democracy in Mali. Held in some haste, and with a fragile peace prevailing in the regions at the heart of the crisis, many from both the Malian and international community nevertheless pushed for the vote to take place as quickly as possible. Indeed, Mali has been suffering from a lack of accountable, political leadership. In the 16 months since the coup, Dioncounda Traoré acted as interim president, only barely keeping the country together amid internal power struggles and a full-blown armed conflict in the North.

Today, the prevailing hope is that the candidate who emerges winner of this contest will be able to rise to the challenge.

As the French military intervention winds down fully and prepares to hand over security to the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, and the Malian army, the international community has pledged billions of dollars in aid to help rebuild the country. France has made it clear for months that it would be inflexible on the election calendar. The restoration of democracy, through free, fair and transparent elections was a non-negotiable item, and, for many donors a condition upon which aid would be given. The imperative need for a vote to happen quickly means that many Malian voters were disenfranchised; for some, though, it was more important to hold the election – however flawed – rather than wait for “perfect conditions”. In the New York Times, one of the presidential candidates, Soumaila Cissé, says “If we wait for everything to be perfect, we will never be ready for elections.”

In Kidal, a town where Mali’s Tuareg rebellion has been battling for control, a number of significant issues mired the vote. Voter turnout was very low – according to NPR, several polling locations had no voters show up at all, and some people were “warned” by Tuareg separatists not to vote. As the conflictual relationship between the Malian government and the Tuareg minority is at the core of the issue of stability and peace in Mali, will a vote where their voice was muted be genuinely legitimate?

Generally, the voter registration process was not inclusive – many were disenfranchised, including the nearly half a million refugees and internally displaced persons who were not able to cast a ballot, and the use of a 2009 census to build the voter list – essentially denying the democratic right of hundreds of thousands of youth.

With results not having been announced yet – and the need for a run-off still undetermined – it’s unclear which narrative will emerge. Will the hasty, poorly organized election yield a winner with no real democratic mandate who will “lack the necessary legitimacy” (according to Tiébilé Dramé, former foreign minister) and merely be a face for accountability for the international community? Or will the vote of “unquestionable legitimacy” (according to the head of the EU Observer Mission in Mali) produce a leader who is capable of not only rebuilding the country, but also finding a path towards peace with the Tuareg rebellion?