Malians are gearing up for the next big test of the country’s hard-won democratic rehabilitation — parliamentary elections scheduled for Sunday, November 24.
While the precedent set by presidential elections in July is a reassuring one — the ballot saw high turnout and was applauded by international observers — the three-week campaign period preceding Sunday’s vote has been muted, with little popular enthusiasm. Tensions are high, particularly in the north, and the U.N. warns that the country is “extremely volatile.” Suicide attacks are on the rise; violence erupted in the northern city of Kidal on Thursday, three weeks after two French journalists were abducted and killed there; on Friday, a French military advisor was shot in the capital Bamako today; and jihadists continue to haunt the northern desert that they, with the aid of Tuareg groups, conquered last year.
These factors are taking a civic toll. Sunday’s expected turnout is low. The electoral list itself is uninspiring. The parliamentary race is dominated by a medley of alliances, rather than any strong, single candidate. The nation’s most established parties, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Adema) and the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) — headed by presidential runner-up Soumaila Cissé — have struggled to carve out a significant niche. Even President Keita’s Rally for Mali (RPM) party is expected to form a coalition in order to dominate Mali’s new national assembly.
The ruling party has already reached out to bitter rivals in the north, endorsing two Tuareg rebels — including the former negotiator for the radical Islamist party Ansar Dine — in Sunday’s race. The move makes political sense — the RPM needs to build support in the Tuareg-dominated north, and make a gesture towards the national reconciliation at the heart of Keita’s campaign. Yet the endorsement has garnered vocal criticism, notably from voters in the formerly besieged cities of Kidal and Timbuktu who elected Keita for his implicit promise to punish those responsible for Mali’s recent conflict. The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, the leading Tuareg group, is angry as well, having barred its top members from participating in the elections.
Unpopularity notwithstanding, the alliance will further homogenize Mali’s political landscape. And the veneer of political unity could smooth the way towards Keita’s dual objectives of reunification of north and south, and economic stability, not to mention assuage nervous foreign investors. But observers worry that Mali may be sliding back into the failed political structure in place before a 2012 military coup ousted then-President Amadou Toumani Touré. His system of “consensus politics,” i.e., a broad coalition with no visible opposition, saw Mali’s central government eroded by widespread corruption and patronage — leaving the door wide open for the country’s subsequent disintegration.
Is Mali’s new president there yet? Not quite. But until a vibrant opposition emerges (Cissé, we’re looking at you), Keita risks steering Mali back to his predecessor’s disastrous system, under the all-forgiving banner of national unity.