Bamako - Mali is hoping against the odds for credible 28 July
presidential elections but crucial barriers to an acceptable voter turnout and
the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks are casting a long shadow over
The polls are seen as vital to reuniting the country after a
March 2012 military coup and a sweeping offensive by Islamist rebels who
captured the entire north before being flushed out by French and African
But the timing of the vote has raised logistical issues that
critics feel have not been addressed and many have warned that a botched
election could be more damaging for Mali's fragile roadmap to peace than no
election at all.
Chief among the problems highlighted by observers is the
slim chance of a decent turnout, a prerequisite for a result that will be
accepted by a nation still riven with deep divisions after the coup.
With the vote announced at the end of May, officials had
just weeks to distribute almost seven million voting cards and the latest data
from organisers suggests the task is only 60% complete.
Furthermore, the Islamist occupation forced hundreds of
thousands of eligible Malian voters into neighbouring countries or displaced
them internally, and it remains unclear whether they will be able to vote.
Sunday's election comes with Mali's rainy season in full
swing, and heavy storms could inhibit travel, while many observing the holy
month of Ramadan in the mainly Muslim nation may choose to stay at home
whatever the weather.
Analysts Andrew Scarpitta and Charlotte Florance wrote in a
recent blogpost for the US-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation
that a turnout of less than the 36% achieved in 2007 would be unthinkable.
"Furthermore, even though a peace agreement was signed
last month, ethnic tensions are still simmering. Violence, compounded with a
low election turnout, could lead to ongoing instability and conflict,"
Much of the worry over security is focused on the restive
northern town of Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists from the
National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after
signing a ceasefire deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on 18 June
aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for the elections.
But clashes between Tuaregs and black civilians in Kidal
that left four dead last week and the subsequent kidnapping of polling staff by
suspected MNLA gunmen in the town of Tessalit, 200km further north, suggest
that security is far from assured.
Mali's decision to push ahead despite the problems can be
explained, say Scarpitta and Florance, by the fact that key partners, including
the US, are linking offers of aid to the staging of elections on 28 July.
At a special donor conference in Brussels in May, Mali
secured pledges of $4.2bn and in return interim president Dioncounda Traore
vowed to hold "transparent, open, honest and credible" polls.
A quick election also allows Mali's former colonial power
France to withdraw by the end of the year most of the 4 500 troops it sent in
January to stop armed Islamists from advancing towards the capital, Bamako.
The problem is that a botched election could be far more
destabilising than not having a vote, according to Brussels-based think tank
International Crisis Group (ICG), which called in June for a delay of a few
"Even a credible and technically successful election
would not suffice to establish Mali's democracy on a firm foundation, introduce
ethics into the practice of public affairs, reconstruct the Malian security
services or reconcile the Malian people to each other," ICG's Louise
Arbour and Gilles Yabi wrote in a recent report.
"But to therefore resign oneself to having an election
that could mobilise well under the 36% of the eligible voters who participated
in the last presidential vote in 2007 is a peculiar way to encourage democracy
Parallel to the Tuareg problem, analysts fear that residual
elements of the defeated Islamists will seize the opportunity presented by the
election to strike back at the Malian government in a bid to destabilise the
The ICG has urged Mali's authorities, the UN peacekeeping mission
and the French military to prepare for the possibility of terrorist attacks on