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Mali elections hampered by low voter turnout

Ineke Mules
March 30, 2020

The polls went ahead despite the unfolding COVID-19 crisis and the kidnapping of opposition leader Soumalia Cisse. A climate of fear and uncertainty meant many would-be voters chose to stay home.

A Malian woman wears a mask as a preventive measure against the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus in the central market of Bamako
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M .Cattani

Few turned out to vote in Mali's long-delayed parliamentary elections over the weekend, as the country grapples with the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, the kidnapping of main opposition leader Soumalia Cisse, and an ongoing security crisis in the state's north and central regions.

An official turnout figure was not available at the closing of the polls. However, observers from a group of civil society associations estimated that the figure was close to 7.5%. In addition to concerns over the spread of coronavirus, which meant many chose to stay at home, at least 200,000 people who had been displaced by violence were also unable to vote.

The elections had already been postponed several times – the last parliamentary poll was held in 2013, which saw President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's Rally for Mali party win a significant majority. The next parliamentary election was due to be held in late 2018 following Keita's re-election, however the vote was repeatedly deferred owing to security issues. 

A campaign billboard on a busy street in Bamako, Mali
Campaign billboards could be seen all over the capital Bamako in the lead-up to the electionImage: DW/K. Gänsler

Fears over coronavirus spread deters voters

Mali announced its first coronavirus death on Saturday evening, just hours before the polls opened. The victim was a 71-year-old man who had recently returned from France. Mali currently has 20 confirmed cases of the virus.
Several opposition parties had called for the election to be canceled due to fears over the spread of coronavirus. However, Prime Minister Boubou Cisse said proper precautions had been put in place and issued an appeal to voters to observe hygiene measures at the polls.

"Remember to respect the barrier gestures and use the sanitary measures," he told reporters as he cast his ballot.

Read more: DW Africa correspondents on life under the threat of COVID-19

There are concerns that Mali is particularly vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak due to its weak healthcare system and the fact that large swathes of territory remain outside of the government's control. 

The government's election spokesman, Amini Belko Maiga, said authorities were doing what they could to limit the spread of the virus as much as possible. Hand-washing kits were distributed in rural areas; face masks and hand sanitizers being prepared in the capital, Bamako.

"It's true that we cannot say that everything is perfect, but we're doing the maximum," he said.

A researcher performs a test for COVID-19 at a lab in a hospital in Bamako
A researcher performs a test for COVID-19 at a hospital in Bamako. Hospitals began preparing for a potential emergency before Mali even recorded its first caseImage: AFP/M. Cattani

Voter Chiaka Mariko told DW he had been assured that the preventative hygiene measures were adequate.

"The government said that arrangements had been made to deal with the coronavirus," he said. "All polling stations have hydro alcoholic solutions and arrangements have also been made in order to avoid crowds."

Security forces were present at many polling locations to ensure voters were following the measures. However, the president of the country's election observer mission, COCEM, said there weren't enough resources to cover all polling stations. 

"Special measures like the disposal of hand sanitizers and masks for the electoral workers were supplied," Idrissa Traore told DW. "But we regret that these devices have not been systematically applied in all polling stations."

Opposition leader kidnapping overshadows poll

The polls were also overshadowed by the kidnapping of veteran opposition leader Soumalia Cisse on March 25.

Cisse was abducted along with six members of his team while campaigning in the center of the country near the town of Niafunke. His exact whereabouts remain unknown. However, local officials believe he is likely being held by jihadists from the al-Qaeda affiliated GSIM group, which is considered the most powerful extremist group in the Sahel region.

Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita condemned the kidnapping of opposition leader, Soumalia CisseImage: Getty Images/AFP/I. Sanogo

Keita was quick to condemn the kidnapping, saying "no effort would be spared in securing [Cisse's] release."

Cisse had previously been the runner-up in three presidential elections and is the county's former minister of finance. Unlike other opposition parties, his Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) party had urged its voters on Saturday to turn out in large numbers to show their support for Cisse in light of his abduction.

Security situation remains volatile

Ever since an armed rebellion took hold in the country's rural north in 2012, Mali has been trapped in a cycle of violence between various groups, claiming thousands of civilian and military lives.

Read more: Germany reckons with a long troop deployment in Mali

Despite the presence of a large international peacekeeping force, made up of primarily French, German and United Nations (UN) troops, the conflict quickly spread to the south of the country, as well as neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.

According to Mali's security ministry, 274 out of approximately 12,500 polling stations were unable to open due to security concerns.

"Incidents have occurred in Tenenkou, Menaka, Douentza, and other locations in the north and central area of the country," COEM president Traore said. "We noted, in particular, the kidnapping of electoral workers in observers in some areas. In other areas, voters were prevented from voting because the ballot boxes were taken away."

A German soldier stands next to a United Nations tank in Gao, Mali
International security forces maintain a regular presence in Mali's volatile northern and central regionsImage: picture alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

Read more: Africa's Sahel seeks new ways to fight terrorism

Observers had hoped that the election of the new parliament on Sunday would lead to much-needed reforms outlined in a peace agreement brokered between the government and several armed groups – most notably the Tuareg – back in 2015. The deal includes constitutional changes that would allow for more decentralization of governance.

However, the likelihood of this coming to pass is looking doubtful. According to Brema Ely Dicko, a sociologist at the University of Bamako, some opponents believe that the reform can't be adopted by the current parliament because some consider it to be "legal, but not legitimate."

"I wish that we can leave the current situation of the constitution being violated," voter Mariko told DW. "We have a National Assembly whose term of office has expired, so it must be renewed, and the constitution should be in accordance with Malian law."

The legislative elections are expected to renew the 147 seats in Mali's parliament, although the results are not expected for several days.

The second round of elections is scheduled for April 19.