Mali officials announced Tuesday that presidential elections will be held on July 28 (with a possible second ballot scheduled for August 11), in the hopes of resolving an 18-month-long political crisis. Fifteen or so politicians have already declared their candidacy, including former Prime Ministers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Modibo Sidibé, as well as Niankoro Yeah Samaké, who hopes to become Mali’s first Mormon president.
Now that the long-awaited elections are set, however, Malian authorities are facing thorny questions about the extent of political inclusion. Of particular concern are residents of northern regions governed by the rebel National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (NMLA). In Mali, resentment towards the Tuareg rebels remains high – they are widely blamed for opening Mali’s vast north to Al Qaeda-linked jihadists via their own short-lived 2012 rebellion. Although the NMLA aided French troops during a military campaign launched this January, it still refuses to allow the Malian army or administration access to many northern cities and villages. The election’s timing is equally problematic: July may be the “worst possible month for an election overall,” coinciding as it does with a critical agricultural period and Ramadan.
But despite the potential complications, the international community has largely applauded the announcement of a summer vote. Especially France, whose Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius – currently on a visit to Bamako – reportedly influenced the chosen election date. French support reflects a broader political calculus at play: President François Hollande’s Mali campaign earned the floundering leader wide domestic support and international clout. Hollande is now eager to pull French troops out rapidly and turn over control to U.N. peacekeepers before getting bogged down in a multi-year conflict. A successful election is viewed as critical to stabilizing the country after French troops leave. The timing, once again, is precarious: according to a French general, “If France leaves too soon and the situation deteriorates, Paris will get the blame.” The European Union and the United States have also welcomed July elections and both plan to resume aid to Mali once a politically legitimate administration is in place.
While rapid elections may be vital to restoring political stability (and ensuring foreign aid), they are risky in northern pockets where Islamist militants, who continue to wage guerilla warfare, could intimidate voters. More alarming still is the specter of heightened ethnic tensions between Mali’s minority groups (i.e. Tuaregs and Arabs) and southern residents. It’s difficult to imagine that Mali’s national electoral commission will exclude residents of NMLA-controlled regions – after all, such North-South divisions set the stage for the 2012 uprising that led to the current conflict. However, ingrained hostilities between the two regions may not be so easily overcome. A major political group has already decried inclusion of residents governed by the NMLA (as well as France’s tacit support of the movement). For its part, the NMLA has widely denounced the upcoming elections.
While peaceful elections with high turnout – recent votes drew less than 40% participation – may be possible (and, indeed, desperately hoped for by Paris and Bamako alike), they are hard to envision. Which means that come July 28, Mali’s remaining jihadists will be more than ready to take advantage of any resulting chaos, much as they did 18 months ago.