Polls have closed in Mali as voters cast their ballots in the second round of legislative elections despite an armed conflict and the threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Sunday’s runoff vote for 147 seats in the National Assembly on Sunday was aimed at reviving confidence in the embattled institutions of a country struggling with deteriorating violence that has killed thousands of people and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
The long-delayed first round of voting on March 29 was disrupted by attacks and intimidation, including the kidnapping of opposition leader Soumaila Cisse. It was unclear which group was behind the kidnapping.
Acts of intimidated were also reported in the runoff vote.
“I am scared. I had to hide to visit my own constituents,” Hamadoune Dicko, a parliamentary candidate for the Democratic Alliance for Peace party, told Al Jazeera.
“If they can abduct our opposition leader for 21 days, they could abduct a president, they can take anyone they want,” Dicko added.
In central Mali, where Dicko is campaigning, al-Qaeda affiliates reportedly asked people not to vote, said Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, who has reported extensively on Mali.
The president of a voting station in the volatile region was forcibly removed and representatives of the electoral commission “chased away by armed men”, one of the representatives told AFP news agency.
Elsewhere, voting was cancelled after fighters threatened to attack voters, according to reporters.
Already on Saturday, voting equipment had been destroyed by unknown assailants in northern Mali.
Mali is one of the world’s most impoverished nations. Its conflict zones and poor healthcare infrastructure place it in the category of countries that health experts say are at high risk of coronavirus.
An election-monitoring NGO warned about social distancing in Sunday’s vote. Keita said “every health and security” precaution will be “rigorously applied”.
The country has officially recorded 13 deaths out of more than 200 cases.
The turnout in the first round nationwide averaged 35.6 percent, but was just 12.9 percent in the capital, Bamako.
These are the country’s first parliamentary polls since 2013 when President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s Rally for Mali party won a big majority.
The elections were meant to take place in late 2018 after Keita was returned to office, but the polls were postponed several times, mainly because of security concerns.
A “national dialogue” staged last year to discuss Mali’s spiral of violence called for the ballot to be completed by May.
The hope is that the new MPs will endorse changes to the constitution that will promote decentralisation, s key to pushing ahead with the government’s plans for peace.
Mali has experienced attacks by armed groups since a 2012 coup that helped separatist rebels and groups associated with al-Qaeda gain a foothold in the country’s restive north.
Former colonial power France intervened in 2013 to drive out fighters that had occupied the north and has since kept thousands of troops in the region as part of counter-terrorism operations.
Defying French and United Nations troops, the armed groups took their campaign into the centre of the country and now threaten neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger.
“The government drew up a peace plan and reached a peace agreement with the non-jihadi groups back in 2015 and a key stage in that agreement is to get decentralisation – more people and responsibility and spending power down to the regional and local level,” Paul Melly, a consulting Fellow with the Africa Programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“And that’s why they [the government] needed parliament to approve this next step, and the problem they faced was that the old parliament … really lacked the legitimacy to give approval to this next stage of the peace process that is so vitally needed.”
Melly said the government faced a “real dilemma” amid the worsening insecurity.
“It’s a very imperfect election but if they had decided to postpone once again, that could have been an equal bad option,” he said.
“The [attacks by] jihadist groups have actually not only continued but have become more widespread, and there’s been intercommunal violence.
“So there would have inevitably been difficult problems and risks in either direction but the option of postponing the election for a few months, say until next year in the hope of the virus would have gone away, the security situation could have gone even worse in the meantime.
“There were no easy choices, there was no good option. And although this election would have taken place on a pretty slender mandate, there will be members of parliament elected roughly representing the spread of Malian political opinion.”