Mali votes for the future

Mali’s election brings the promise of democracy to a population eager to move on from the past 20 months of strife.

UN peacekeepers deployed to Mali in early July will ensure there is stability in the run-up to the elections [AFP]

Bamako, Mali – Mali’s crucial presidential election on Sunday will take place in an atmosphere of hope but shaded by uncertainty.

Uncertainty because since the end of military rule, Mali has held five elections. All had significant problems. More uncertainty because of the political turmoil that has plagued us for the past 20 months. And, even more uncertainty because of deficiencies already apparent in our voter registration system.

As a Malian, I can’t deny these feelings of uncertainty, especially because I won’t be able to vote – my name was not entered in the voter rolls in time.

But I remain very hopeful. As a young entrepreneur working to build jobs and infrastructure, I can feel the excitement for this election. The increased sophistication and substance of the presidential campaigns and the key role mobile technology is playing will likely make Sunday’s polls the most successful in Mali’s democracy, now more than two decades old.

Mali prepares for polls

The upcoming contest will be the fifth in the country’s history; there were none before 1991. In the two elections where an incumbent ran for re-election (1997 and 2007), the vote was uncompetitive and characterised by boycotts and poor turnout. The 2002 experience probably offers the best insight to this year’s vote.

All we remember today from 2002 is that a peaceful transition of power occurred between Mali’s first democratically elected president, Alpha Oumar Konare, and Amadou Toumani Toure, the retired Army general, who in 1991 led a military coup that ended 23 years of military dictatorship. But it is easy to forget that the first round of that vote was characterised by massive irregularities as documented by the Carter Center [PDF]. Almost 30 percent of the votes cast were simply not counted.

It is no wonder that so many people hope this weekend’s elections can lead Mali to a state of stability, enhanced commerce, and peace.

The campaign has been largely positive, enthusiastic and focused on the vision and priorities of the candidates. More than a year after the Tuareg-led rebellion in northern Mali sparked a military coup and the subsequent occupation of the northern part of the country by al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists, the prevailing mood today in Mali is that the worst is over and it is time to turn the page.

To be in Mali today is to be surrounded by a palpable feeling of excitement. Candidates have held rallies in stadiums packed with dancing and singing supporters engaged in good old-fashioned retail politicking. Bamako, the capital city, is decorated with uncountable campaign posters. Taxi drivers proudly display the names of their favourite candidates.

Mali does not have a history of hostile electoral politics and despite the crisis, campaigning thus far has been positive and focused on core issues such as peace and reconciliation, food security, unemployment, healthcare, and education.

There are no US-style campaign ads warning voters about the perils of voting for a certain candidate. There are no anonymous groups funding robocalls – automated phone calls providing anonymous recordings – or distributing flyers smearing opponents over personal matters. Instead, we have seen candidates on national and private television making their pitch for why they are the best person to lead the country.

As I walk around Bamako, I hear candidates competing for the votes of women by promising better schools and healthcare for their children, or targeting youth groups with promises of jobs and training. Interest in the vote is strong, frequently dominating family dinner discussions or spurring amiable debates among young people drinking tea under the mango trees.

Along with a much more substantive public debate, the role of technology and especially cell phones will make this election different from those in years past. Anyone with a mobile phone can send a text message with their last name and national identification number to a short code and get an automated response with the exact location of their polling station.

UN deploys peacekeeping mission in Mali

In addition, independent observers, campaign representatives, lawyers and concerned citizens are all mobilised to help voters perform their civic duty no matter the circumstances. For example, the Malian NGO, SOS Démocratie, with the support of USAID, is using the Ushahidi software platform, developed after Kenya’s disputed 2007 election, to crowdsource reports of irregularities via SMS, a telephone hotline, or a smartphone.

Media interest – local, regional, and international – is like nothing Mali has ever seen before and Twitter, Facebook, and call-in radio shows will no doubt buzz with stories about how the election was conducted.

To be sure, the security situation remains precarious, especially in the North, and there is a chance that extremists will target polling stations on or before Election Day. But the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers and French troops should minimise this risk. In addition, the presence of foreign troops should serve as an additional deterrent against the outbreak of riots or violent protests and reassure voters once the results are announced. By law, the provisional results need to be published within five days of the vote.

More importantly, the installation of a democratically-elected president will lay the foundation for Mali’s political rebirth, putting in place a credible central government that can act with international support to address the social and economic issues that were largely responsible for the last year’s violent turmoil.

We have come a long way since last year, when Mali almost disappeared from the map. And while there are reasons to fear the risks that come along with this election, Malians have been waiting for this opportunity. This week’s election could be the opportunity for Mali to not only get back on its feet, but thrive in peace.

Salif Romano Niang is a PhD candidate in political science at Purdue University. He is the co-founder of Malo, an organisation that combats poverty and malnutrition. In June 2013, he was named as a New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Follow him on Twitter: @salifrniang