On August 11 Mali conducted the second and final round of its national elections. The results are expected on August 16. The leading contenders are former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, often called IBK, and former finance minister Soumaila Cisse. Keita is the favorite, having won 39 percent of the votes in the first round to Cisse’s 19 percent. In the first round, voter turnout was higher than in previous elections, though still under 50 percent. In the secessionist north, voter participation was much lower. The Malian political class, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), France, and the United States look to the success of these elections to put to rest the two year crisis that followed a military coup against the corrupt government of President Amadou Toumani Toure. A democratically elected government will also permit donors to resume the aid flow.
The coup provided an opening for the secession of northern, Tuareg-dominated part of the country, which declared its independence as Azawad. However, radical jihadists soon subverted more moderate elements and established an Islamist regime. A jihadist push south was stopped by French intervention. French, Malian, and ECOWAS troops pushed the jihadists out of the cities, though they failed to destroy them. Tuareg disaffection from Bamako appears to continue to be widespread.
The roots of the current crisis are a Malian political class that was isolated from the mass of the population and that was increasingly corrupt. That reality was disguised by a serious of well-conducted elections that established for Mali the undeserved reputation of being a model African democracy. However, voter participation continued to fall. In the north of the country, there has been a persistent insurrection by the Tuareg peoples and their allies against domination by Bamako for more than a generation. The Tuaregs want a degree of autonomy or even independence. The Bamako government had repeatedly promised “federalism,” but never delivered. The Tuareg insurrection heated up after the collapse of Quaddafi’s Libya regime and the return of some Tuareg mercenaries. Bamako’s military reverses and general mismanagement led to the coup against Toure, which enjoyed significant popular approval.
Mali’s persistent challenges include an unresponsive and corrupt political class and its failure to reconcile with the Tuaregs (and other minorities) in the north. It remains to be seen if these elections will address either of those issues. Keita and Cisse are part of the political establishment that runs Mali. Further, Keita is especially popular in Bamako, less so elsewhere. If he wins, he will need to move quickly to open a dialogue with the disaffected north. Some parts of the north, notably Kidal, participated hardly at all in the elections. It remains to be seen whether the elections will be a first step toward national reconciliation or whether they will further alienate the north. As for the jihadists, they are “just over the hill,” and can reassert themselves at any time, especially if the new government in Bamako missteps.
The bottom line is that it is far too soon for France, ECOWAS, or the United States to go into self-congratulatory mode over the success of the Malian elections.