With a state of emergency about to be lifted, campaigning for Mali's elections on July 28 is poised to begin in earnest. Many potential voters are skeptical, but their country is poor and faces pressure from abroad.
Rokia Diarra Karambe is a women's rights activist and President of the Federation of Mali's Migrant Associations. Whenever she thinks of July 28, she simply shakes her head. "The government says it will be possible to conduct elections on this date, but citizens and civil society have their doubts," she says. On July 28, the people of Mali are to choose a new head of state.
The elections are necessary because of a coup on March 22, 2012, which tipped the country into chaos. The crisis culminated in a ten month occupation of the north of the country by various Islamist groups. Rokia Diarra Karambe obviously wants Mali to move forward and put this crisis behind it, but she is wary of too much haste. "Why can't we have an extra four months so we can prepare for the elections properly?" she asks.
Good prospects for the established parties
Mali's political parties are getting ready for the poll and their endeavors have been made easier by the lifting of the state of emergency. The date for the start of campaigning is June 6, but key candidates were selected weeks ago and it is already apparent than sweeping changes to the pre-coup political landscape are not expected.
Interim President Dioncounda Traore called elections for July 28 in a bid to get the country moving again
Dramane Dembele is believed to have a fair chance of winning the poll. The 46-year-old engineer was relatively unknown when he was nominated in April. But he has the backing of the Adema-PASJ, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali, which is the biggest and best known party in the country, and he could therefore be catapulted to the top.
Fear of unrest and fresh violence
Yet Dembele's chances of becoming president are not the pressing issue on the streets of Bamako. Local people are far more concerned about whether Mali can be kept adequately safe and secure. There is intense speculation that Islamists could to try to disrupt the election by carrying out targeted attacks on polling day. The Islamists may have been driven out of the cities of Gao and Timbuktu, but they are apparently still active in many parts of the region.
"Obviously there is no such thing as 100 percent security and that also applies to Bamako," said Issaga Kampo, first vice-president of the national, independent election commission which is known by its French acronym CENI. Despite this frank admission of security limitations, the organizers of the elections say they will try – with the help of the international community – to make them as safe as possible.
ECOWAS representative, Cheaka Abdou Toure, says more than 6,000 troops from other African states are already in Mali
Such efforts are desperately needed in Kidal. The northern city is still under occupation – by the Tuareg separatist MNLA – though Malian soldiers are reported to be underway to relieve the city. The European Union would like elections to be held there, too, on July 28.
Blue helmet security
Cheaka Abdou Toure represents the West African regional bloc ECOWAS in Mali. He believes the 12,600 UN blue helmets scheduled for deployment in Mali could help make the elections safer. "We have already done a lot for security in the country and around 6,300 African soldiers are on active service in Mali," he said.
In neighboring Burkina Faso, Alexandre Ouedraogo says Malian unity should be restored before elections are held
The transformation of what was known as MISMA (International Mission to Support Mali) into a blue helmet mission is now underway and should be completed by July 1st.
There is uncertainty over how and where Mali's numerous refugees will be able to vote. Around 475,000 people have fled northern Mali since the crisis started, around 174,000 of whom have sought sanctuary in neighboring countries. One plan is to install polling boths in the displaced persons camps. However, canvassing for votes in these camps in illegal. Without newspapers, Internet or television – all of which are unavailable in the camps – there is virtually no opportunity to find out who the candidates are and what they stand for.
Mali needs to be reunified
Alexandre Ouedraogo lives in Burkina Faso and is one of the critics of the hastily arranged poll in neighboring Mali. He runs an NGO called "Movement of Burkina Faso for Social Justice" and believes that Mali should be reunited as a country and peace should be restored before elections take place. He works with Tuareg separatists who have fled Mali and says they have deep reservations about the government in Bamako.
But the government is not in a position to change the election date. Mali is heavily dependent on foreign aid, which accounts for 25 percent of the national budget. After the coup on March 22, 2012, this aid was frozen and this explains why the interim president Dioncounda Traore is so keen for elections to be held in July. The pressure for elections from abroad is huge.
"At the moment, nothing is moving. There are no local projects, there is no funding, no investment," said Issaga Kampo.
This is probably why CENI is also battling to ensure that elections really are held on July 28. They have already had some good news. The biometric voter registration cards are going to be printed and distributed in time for the election.