Mali’s presidential elections are scheduled to begin on April 29. There are some fears that continued instability in the north of the country could force the vote to be postponed. But if it goes ahead as planned, Malians will soon see the reins of power being handed over to the country’s third democratically-elected leader in two decades.
The incumbent president Amadou Toumani Touré – known popularly as ATT – has promised to step down, independent electoral monitors have been summoned to oversee proceedings, and a score of candidates have put their names forward for consideration by the Malian electorate.
While this presents an invaluable opportunity for the country to consolidate its democracy, however, the actual impact of the election on ordinary Malians may be rather minimal. To begin with, the four clear frontrunners are all male, all of a similar age, all educated in France, all friends with the president, all establishment figures, and all of a similar political orientation.
In the eyes of many international organisations and particularly Western donors, Mali represents a rare model of stability and democracy in West Africa.
Mali has officially been a democracy since Moussa Traoré’s military regime was overthrown in 1991 by a combination of anti-government protests and a military coup led by ATT. In 1992, a new constitution was created and elections were held in which Alpha Oumar Konaré won his first, of a maximum two, 5-year terms. Konaré won again in 1997 despite a boycott of the election in protest against his anti-democratic annulment of legislative elections, before the popular ATT re-entered the political arena in 2002 to take over the presidency, which he retained convincingly in 2007.
ATT has now vowed to step down after he has seen out his two terms and, in many ways, the 2012 election will be the most interesting, significant and open vote Malians have faced to date. At the ballot boxes, Malians will have a choice of around 20 candidates, none of whom – for the first time – has any particular claim over the presidency.
But while Malians face a genuine choice with no candidate being a clear shoo-in, there have emerged four clear front-runners – namely Soumaïla Cissé, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), Modibo Sidibé and Dioncounda Traoré. Unfortunately, discerning between them and the directions they would take the country is difficult. As mentioned above, they are all men in their 60s (apart from Sidibé who is 59) with similar educations, political leanings, backgrounds and experience.
More importantly, however, they are all insiders in Malian politics. As Martin Vogl, an independent journalist in the capital Bamako, explained to the Think Africa Press, the four front-runners “have all proved that they are willing to work within the constraints of Malian politics which involves a lot of corruption, a lot of back-slapping, a lot of talking and not too much action, a lot of vested interests”.
Indeed, all four main candidates are very much establishment figures who have worked comfortably within the highest echelons of government. IBK and Modibo Sidibé were prime ministers under ATT, Soumaïlia Cissé was a cabinet minister and head of the West Africa Monetary Union, while Dioncounda Traoré is president of both Mali’s biggest party ADEMA-PASJ and the Alliance for Democracy and Progress, a coalition of parties supporting the non-party-aligned ATT.
All four are known to be friends of ATT, and all have been very reluctant to criticise the incumbent’s record in government. “Most Malians are pretty disappointed by the government”, claimed Martin Vogl, adding “I’m surprised there’s not a [high-profile] leader that has come out more radically critical of the president”.
Mali is troubled by a whole host of serious economic, governance and social problems. It is one of the poorest countries in the world with chronic foreign debt and reliance on international donors for over 50% of government expenditure. The adult literacy rate is thought to be as low as 30% by some estimates. Corruption is known to be deep and widespread. Environmental degradation is threatening Mali’s already deeply troubled agricultural sector. The cost of living is perceived to be rising. And Mali is now facing serious security threats from Tuareg rebels in the north of the country.
Much blame for Mali’s extensive range of ills could be laid at the feet of ATT’s administration and, in theory, these democratic elections should present an opportunity for Malians to call for a change of direction and fresh ideas. The option of genuine change, however, does not seem to be readily forthcoming.
The main candidates’ response (or lack thereof) to the protests over the government’s dealing of the Tuareg rebellion perhaps exemplifies Mali’s political tendency towards consensus and convergence. Earlier this month, angry protesters took to the streets of the capital Bamako, burning tyres and blocking roads, for several days over what they saw as the government’s incompetence in handling the Tuareg attacks. Yet none of the frontrunners seized the opportunity to publicly sympathise with widespread discontent by criticising the government's handling of the Tuareg situation or even challenging to the current government’s policies.
The choice available to Malians at the ballot box will be, it seems, more limited than it may initially appear. And, in fact, Mali’s democracy on closer inspection seems to be a ‘model’ less in the sense of being an ideal worth emulating as an incomplete prototype. Turnout at Mali’s presidential and parliamentary elections over the past 20 years, for example, has never even reached 40%.
Given Mali’s tendency towards political consensus and the seemingly low stakes due to the similarities between the main candidates, what will be the factors would mobilise Malians to vote for one candidate over another in the election?
Malian politics is very locally-oriented and it seems that the election may simply come down to the political parties behind each candidate, and which party is best-organised in getting voters to the polls, whether through promises of local development, friendly meet-and-greets or complimentary sacks of rice. As Vogl explains, “the thing that will probably be most in the mind of the voter will be which political party has managed to get the closest to him or her”.
Indeed, part of the reason the front-runners are leading the pack is because of the party structures supporting them – three of the four are the leaders of Mali’s three biggest political parties – and it seems that it will not be policy, political orientation or even personality that determines the race but local issues, organisation and grassroots mobilisation.
The opportunity the 2012 election will offer Malians to express their democratic will has huge intrinsic merit that cannot be underemphasised. But, with the main candidates crowding the centre-ground of promising to continue the legacy of the past decade, the election will be more about consolidating the procedures of democracy than heralding change.
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