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PRICE: Mali’s presidential election

An imperfect but inclusive test for democracy

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By U.S. standards, there are few free, fair and transparent elections in Africa. Candidates' cries of foul play often mar the election process. If every request to postpone an election were accepted, there wouldn't be any held.

The first round of Mali's presidential election is scheduled for Sunday, with a second-round runoff Aug. 11 if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote. The campaign officially kicked off July 7 with a field of 28 candidates, reaching out to voters across the country.

Tiebile Drame, a former foreign minister, has withdrawn. He petitioned Mali's Constitutional Court to postpone the election, claiming everyone would not be able to participate in the process because fairness for voters was not in place. He said "the deeply divided country was not ready to run a credible election" and that election law had been violated because no voter lists were available in the northern town of Kidal by the June 25 deadline.

Mr. Drame was the chief negotiator between the Malian government and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), which led to the signing of a peace accord June 18 in neighboring Burkina Faso. The agreement allowed the Malian military and government administrators to return to Kidal to prepare for the inclusive elections.

Securing Kidal has become difficult because of the ongoing skirmishes between Malian soldiers and the Tuareg separatists. There is growing concern that the unrest might interfere with the July elections in that part of the country.

In January, French-led military forces liberated several northern towns, including Kidal, the MNLA stronghold. The group refused access to the Malian military and government leaders, which was a stumbling block that affected thousands of potential voters. The brokered peace agreement has freed up the election process.

Mr. Drame was upset with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who he said had become "the director of elections in Mali" for pressing government leaders to follow through with the scheduled elections. France long stated that it wanted to draw down its troops, but agreed to stay until after the elections. A minimal force of 1,000 soldiers would remain by the end of the year, along with 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers. By then, trained and newly equipped Malian soldiers should be able to provide a secure environment for the government.

Mali had been struggling with Islamist extremist groups attempting to take control of the northern part of the country. In early January, the insurgents moved within 300 miles of Bamako, the capital. Interim President Dioncounda Traore called French President Francois Hollande asking for help to subdue the extremists. French troops soon liberated Mali's northern towns, although sporadic attacks by Islamists continue. The insurgents interfered with the election process until now, when more security has been established.

Officials still have obstacles to overcome to ensure a successful election, including the distribution of voter-identification cards and concerns over the rainy season, which could make roads impassable. In addition, Ramadan might affect voter turnout, and there are concerns about the thousands of Malian refugees in neighboring countries who might not be able to vote.

The Tuareg and Arab population in the 13 northern provinces surrounding Kidal also need to partake in the elections, even though there may be resentment toward the former government insiders who are candidates — which could lead to a boycott.

Mr. Drame had asked that the elections be postponed to ensure a higher voter turnout for the legitimacy of a newly elected president. Voter turnout in Mali historically has been about 40 percent. What is important is that the election process brings together the diverse ethnic population of Mali, even if the voter turnout is lower.

Marissa Samake yesterday sent me the latest polls by Jeune Afrique, which shows her husband in third place. In the email, she noted: "The campaign is going well, and we are spreading our reach into the different villages in Mali. There is a strong chance we will go into the second round."

The election polls indicate that of the five leaders, three have served as former ministers, part of the "old guard" — Racine Seydou Thiam and Niamkoro Yeah Samake, both new faces. The polls show Ibrahim Boubacar Keita with 23 percent, Mr. Thiam with 20 percent, Mr. Samake with 18 percent, Soumaila Cisse with 14 percent and Soumana Sacko with 10 percent. The remaining candidates, including Mr. Drame, lag with 1 percent to 5 percent each.

Mr. Samake noted several weeks ago that the ethnic tensions have subsided and that adequate security was in place for campaigning around the country, to reach out to the voters. He thinks turnout on election day will be representative of all civil society.

The peace accord signed in June has eased ethnic tensions in the country. Now, Mali needs a fresh start with leadership that can unify the country — with no legacy of the prior corrupt governments. Especially because the MNLA separatists mistrust previous administrations, a new face can make a difference with the various ethnic factions — to bring all Malians together under the same tent.

John Price is a former U.S. ambassador to Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles Islands. He currently serves as a resident scholar at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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