The people of Mali will go to the polls on 28 July in the first round of a presidential election that is an important step towards the restoration of democratic civilian rule.
Candidates have been touring the country. Of the 27 contenders, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and Soumaïla Cissé are tipped as favourites, but several others have a serious chance; and the race includes Mali's first two female presidential aspirants, Oumar Sall Seck and Aïdara Aïssata Cissé. The contest will probably go to an August run-off between the two strongest performers.
Sixteen months after jihadist armed groups swept the demoralized national army out of the north, and barely six months since French and African troops reversed that humiliation, this election is a critical test. A state machine whose failings have been graphically illustrated by the events of the past two years now has the chance to show whether it is in fact more resilient than some had feared. The successful organization of polling nationwide, even in desert towns such as Kidal and Tessalit – where civil servants have only just returned – could help to rebuild confidence in constitutional rule.
And the two-round voting system used in Mali should produce a new head of state who can claim a winning mandate of more than 50% of the vote.
That will strengthen their hand in the difficult task of negotiating with disenchanted Tuareg and other northern communities – and then selling a potentially uncomfortable compromise settlement in Bamako, where hardline nationalists still claim a significant hearing.
Risks and a bar set high
But if the potential benefits of a successful election process are great, the risks are daunting.
The new president's mandate will look less impressive if popular participation is as unenthusiastic as in many of Mali’s previous elections since the adoption of pluralist democracy in 1992. Barely a third of registered voters bothered to cast their ballots when Amadou Toumani Touré secured his second term, in 2007 – and that was one of the better turnouts.
Popular disenchantment with a political class that seems out of touch with everyday life runs deep. When the military took over in March last year, pro-junta support on the street was vocal, whereas few joined party loyalists on protest marches in defence of democracy.
Even if the recent experience of national crisis draws more voters to the polls this time, there are serious practical hurdles to be overcome.
It is unclear how many of the 300,000 Malians who have come of age since the register was last updated will be able to cast a ballot. Efforts are being made to provide voting arrangements for northern refugees now in camps in neighbouring countries. But some refugees and some of the northerners who sought refuge within the country, in Bamako and elsewhere, could miss out. In the far north, officials will have had only a few weeks to ensure registered voters have their ID cards. The small population of this desert region is statistically marginal in polling weight – but it is vital that they are able to vote if Mali is to convince Tuareg supporters of the autonomist Mouvement National de Libération de l'Azawad (MNLA) that they will have a respected place in today’s reunified country.
Critics – including Tiébilé Dramé, the government envoy in peace talks with the MNLA – feel the vote is being held too early. Many commentators have suggested it could have been put back until later in the year, after the rainy season and the holy month of Ramadan are over, to allow more time for practical preparations to be finalized.
There is no doubt that this will be an imperfect election. Mali's interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, has admitted as much. So why has he been so determined to press ahead – strongly encouraged by France, the European Union and the US?
The case for sticking to the timetable is that the dangers of delay – for national and regional stability – would also be great. There is no clearly obvious best choice to make.
An early poll is attractive to Western governments and Mali’s regional neighbours, for their own domestic political and administrative reasons. It is much easier for France's President François Hollande to reassure his own voters that the deployment of 4,000 troops to Mali has been in a good cause if this can be seen as paving the way for the early restoration of democracy. The same logic applies for member states of members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), who are providing much of the 12,640-strong United Nations peacekeeping and police force. Meanwhile, the US is barred by its own legislation from disbursing aid until constitutional rule is restored.
However, these are secondary considerations.
There are also serious internal reasons for holding the election now rather than putting the poll back by several months. The country urgently needs to tackle dangerously powerful inter-communal tensions, particularly the deep mistrusts that have developed between the black Malian majority and the country’s light-skinned Tuareg and Arab minorities.
Resentment and anger can be seen at the national level, with bombastic commentators in the Bamako press raging at government compromise with the MNLA.
But they are equally worrying in many local communities, where Tuareg in particular find themselves commonly labelled as 'terrorist sympathisers', somehow to blame for the abuses to which northern towns such as Gao and Timbuktu were subjected during the 10 months of jihadist control.
Meanwhile, in Kidal, in the Sahara, several people have died in clashes between some Tuareg and black Malians who came out to welcome the return of the army.
If Mali is to rediscover durable internal peace and stability, there is a lot of talking and healing to be done. Despite two years of crisis, the economy has proved resilient. The administration continues to function; revenues are still collected. Outside the north, public services have not collapsed.
So the overwhelming challenge that the country faces is political and social – a fundamental national reconciliation.
Yet for months the political class has been focused on the presidential vote and the contest for parliamentary seats that is set to follow, probably in September. There is a case for saying that until the electoral races are out of the way Mali's political leaders will not focus on their much greater challenge – achieving a settlement that can resolve the inter-communal mistrusts that could yet drag the nation back into crisis.