Votes are being counted in Mali from a referendum on changing the constitution that the military rulers and regional powers have said will pave the way to elections and a return to civilian rule.
The military government, which seized power in coups in 2020 and 2021, promised to hold the plebiscite as part of a transition to democracy under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
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Voting on Sunday began at 08:00 GMT and provisional results are expected within 72 hours. Presidential elections are scheduled for February 2024.
Voter turnout was projected to be low in the country of 21 million due to armed conflict. But it will be seen as an indicator of the military administration’s ability to restore stability and generate popular enthusiasm for its agenda.
“I am convinced this referendum will pave the way for a new Mali, a strong Mali, an efficient Mali, a Mali in the service of the wellbeing of its population,” interim President Assimi Goita said on Sunday.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque said that although around 8 million Malians are eligible to vote, “many of them will not be able to cast their ballots because there are large swathes of land in the north in the centre of the country that are in the hands of armed groups linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL [ISIS]”.
Reporting from the capital, Bamako, Haque said that in the northern city of Kidal, there is no vote taking place, and in Timbuktu, armed groups have threatened to attack polling stations.
However, he added that in Bamako, there is “an element of defiance” and a palpable sense that “Malians really want to get their voices heard and really want to push forward in this referendum and this change in the constitution”.
Some of the changes in the committee-drafted constitution are contentious, with proponents saying they would strengthen fragile political institutions and opponents insisting they would give the president sweeping powers.
But regional bodies and the United Nations see the referendum as a crucial test of the military’s willingness to stick to the transition and hold a nationwide democratic process, particularly when violent religious groups are stepping up attacks.
Al Jazeera’s Haque said this was a moment 30 years in the making, adding that “the leader of the Malian military government has succeeded where previously elected presidents have failed in organising this vote and organising conversation around this referendum”.
The vote, he said, is about creating “legitimacy and sovereignty for millions that have felt torn with violence in a country that’s been under attack for almost 10 years”.
The draft includes updates that have been proposed in the past failed efforts to revise the constitution that supporters hope will reinforce democracy and address divisions, including the creation of a second parliamentary chamber to boost representation from across Mali.
The proposed establishment of a separate court of auditors for state spending will bring Mali in line with a directive from the West African Economic and Monetary Union – also known by its French-language acronym UEMOA – from 2000.
But some opposition parties, pro-democracy groups and campaigners for the “no” vote say the non-democratically elected authorities, such as the military, have no right to oversee such a substantial constitutional overhaul.
“The concerns of the Muslim faith aren’t taken into account at all, that’s why I voted ‘no’,” 30-year-old Mariam Diop told the AFP news agency.
But civil servant Boulan Barro said: “Today is a historic day. This vote will change many things … That’s why I voted ‘yes’, for a new Mali.”
On Friday, the West African nation called on the United Nations to withdraw its peacekeeping mission from the country “without delay”, denouncing the UN’s “failure” to respond to security challenges. UN Security Council members must adopt a resolution to extend the mission’s mandate by June 30.
The military rulers have increasingly imposed operational restrictions on peacekeepers and also broke Mali’s longstanding alliance with former colonial power France.
The UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali – MINUSMA, as the force is known – was set up in 2013 to help stabilise the country after a Tuareg rebellion the previous year that gave rise to continued fighting. While rebels were forced from power in Mali’s northern cities with the help of a French-led military operation, they regrouped in the desert and began launching attacks on the Malian army and its allies.