Mali’s interim government has postponed a constitutional referendum, a key step on the country’s path towards elections meant to restore democracy after a military takeover in 2020.
“The transitional government informs national and international opinion that the date of the referendum scheduled for March 19, 2023 … will be slightly postponed,” it said in a statement released on Friday.
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The referendum is a milestone on the road to elections promised for February. With its postponement, the military will miss the first deadline on a timetable it drew up to return Mali to civilian rule.
The announcement came a day after Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga told Al Jazeera that the referendum will take place “according to the constitution and, God willing, this referendum will take place”.
“The deadline remains the date we were able to negotiate with ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States], and the head of state is firmly committed to respecting this date,” the government statement said.
The delay had been expected for some time because almost no arrangements had been made for the vote and the draft constitution was handed over to interim president and coup leader Assimi Goita only on February 27.
ECOWAS lifted a set of trade and financial sanctions against Mali in July after the military government committed to a March 2024 handover. The sanctions were imposed in January 2022 when the military government was considering remaining in power for up to five years.
The statement said the interim government would install subdivisions of the election management body in all regions of the country before holding the vote.
The interim government said it wanted to familiarise the public with the draft of the constitution.
“The new date of the referendum will be set after consultation with the independent election management authority and all stakeholders in the electoral process,” the statement said.
The new constitution is a key element of a vast reform project the military has launched to justify continuing to govern until 2024.
The draft constitution significantly strengthens the power of the president. Under it, the president rather than the government “determines the policy of the nation”, appoints the prime minister and ministers, and has the right to sack them. The president could also dissolve the National Assembly.
Pressure from ECOWAS not to have members of the military government stand for election has failed to dispel speculation about Goita’s intentions to run in 2024.
The draft constitution states that Mali is an “independent, sovereign, unitary, indivisible, democratic, secular and social republic”.
Imams in Mali have been contesting the principle of secularism and have called on Muslims to oppose it.
The draft proclaims any coup as an “imprescriptible crime”.
But those who carried out the 2020 coup and another one in 2021 to consolidate their hold on power would be safe since acts prior to the constitution going into effect would be covered by amnesty laws.
Mali is in the throes of an 11-year-old security crisis triggered by a regional revolt in the north that developed into a full-blown rebellion.
Military rule has led to a breakup with France, the country’s traditional ally, and closer ties with Russia.