Mali election: The wind of change, or deja vu all over again?

Supporters of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ahead of the July 29 vote (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

Supporters of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita ahead of the July 29 vote (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

The results from Mali’s presidential election were finally announced on Thursday, with incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s share of votes falling short of the 50% required to secure an outright victory.

The 73-year-old Keita  — or “IBK” as he is known in Mali — won 41% of last Sunday’s vote.

He will now seek a second five-year term by contesting an August 12 runoff against second-place finisher Soumaila Cisse, a former finance minister and chairman of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, who garnered 18%.

The voting process encountered numerous obstacles, including rigging allegations ands attacks carried out by an an-Qaeda-allied armed group operating in northern Mali.

Violence cancelled voting in three percent of polling stations and disrupted it in one-fifth of them, particularly in the central Mopti region where a recent surge in inter-ethnic killings discouraged many residents from casting their ballots.

Mali’s central government has little control over its northern regions, where it relies on a United Nations peacekeeping mission and French troops to assure some limited degree of security.

Such challenges notwithstanding, the July 29 vote has ushered in an extraordinary moment in Malian political history.

As opposition leaders have pointed out, never before has a sitting president’s bid for reelection been forced into a runoff vote.

With the field of candidates narrowing from 24 in the first round to just two, the opportunity for an opposition upset has never been greater — and IBK’s campaign must go all-out to convince sceptical voters that he deserves a second term.

Corruption and insecurity

After five years of mounting public frustration with IBK’s failure to stem corruption or reverse the spread of insecurity in the country’s northern and central regions, perhaps the winds of political change have begun to blow in Mali?

That is one possible reading of the first-round results. Another is that they promise nothing new.

Even if Cisse succeeds in uniting the country’s fractious opposition parties around him, he carries the baggage of two failed presidential bids - including against IBK in 2013.

Both men’s shares of the July 29 vote were remarkably similar to their 2013 first-round performances. Will it be possible for Cisse, who lost the runoff five years ago by a three-to-one margin, to fare any better this time around?

And even if he does win, can Cisse bring long-overdue reform to national politics and legitimacy to the Malian state?

The 68-year-old Timbuktu native and veteran politician served in government with IBK during the 1990s, and has been a pillar of the political establishment for years-enough for many Malians to be wary of him.

In 2012, after the army seized power in a coup, Cisse was arrested and his home in the capital, Bamako, repeatedly ransacked by troops convinced that he had embezzled public funds. He later had to quash rumours of his involvement in corruption.

‘The inverse of religion’

Looking ahead to the second round of voting, perhaps the key question may prove to be whether voters distrust the sitting president more than they mistrust his opponent.

IBK, who tends to downplay the gravity of the threats facing his country and has referred to spiraling insecurity as merely “residual”, is widely seen as out-of-touch.

Yet many Malians who might otherwise be expected to vote against the unpopular incumbent see Cisse as little better.

They might choose to stay home rather than vote to replace one member of the old guard with another.

Low turnout in the second round would work in IBK’s favour. Participation in the first round was reported at 43%, six points lower than in 2013.

As described by political scientist Jaimie Bleck, Malians have long tended to view their nation’s political process as inherently dishonest and ill-suited to the public good - “the inverse of religion”, she writes.

This may explain why surveys show that Malians have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the way democracy works in their country, even as they still see it as the best form of government.

Under the best of circumstances, if the August 12 run-off goes off smoothly and its results are seen as trustworthy, the winner will then face the daunting task of bringing Malians’ experience with their dysfunctional government into line with their lofty democratic ideals. — Al Jazeera

Bruce Whitehouse

Bruce Whitehouse

Bruce Whitehouse is a cultural anthropologist with interests in migration, development, marriage, demography, Islam and sub-Saharan Africa.  Read more from Bruce Whitehouse

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