Obstacles pile up ahead of Mali election

Mali is hoping against the odds for credible July 28 presidential elections but crucial barriers to an acceptable voter turnout and the ever-present threat of terrorist attacks are casting a long shadow over preparations.

The polls are seen as vital to reuniting the country after a March 2012 military coup and a sweeping offensive by Islamist rebels who captured the entire north before being flushed out by French and African troops.

But the timing of the vote has raised logistical issues that critics feel have not been addressed and many have warned that a botched election could be more damaging for Mali's fragile roadmap to peace than no election at all.

Chief among the problems highlighted by observers is the slim chance of a decent turnout, a prerequisite for a result that will be accepted by a nation still riven with deep divisions after the coup.

With the vote announced at the end of May, officials had just weeks to distribute almost seven million voting cards and the latest data from organisers suggests the task is only 60 percent complete.

Furthermore, the Islamist occupation forced hundreds of thousands of eligible Malian voters into neighbouring countries or displaced them internally, and it remains unclear whether they will be able to vote.

Sunday's election comes with Mali's rainy season in full swing, and heavy storms could inhibit travel, while many observing the holy month of Ramadan in the mainly Muslim nation may choose to stay at home whatever the weather.

Analysts Andrew Scarpitta and Charlotte Florance wrote in a recent blogpost for the US-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation that a turnout of less than the 36 percent achieved in 2007 would be unthinkable.

"Furthermore, even though a peace agreement was signed last month, ethnic tensions are still simmering. Violence, compounded with a low election turnout, could lead to ongoing instability and conflict," they said.

Much of the worry over security is focused on the restive northern town of Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

The Malian authorities finally reclaimed the city after signing a ceasefire deal with the MNLA and another Tuareg group on June 18 aimed at reuniting the country and clearing the way for the elections.

But clashes between Tuaregs and black civilians in Kidal that left four dead last week and the subsequent kidnapping of polling staff by suspected MNLA gunmen in the town of Tessalit, 200 kilometres (125 miles) further north, suggest that security is far from assured.

Mali's decision to push ahead despite the problems can be explained, say Scarpitta and Florance, by the fact that key partners, including the US, are linking offers of aid to the staging of elections on July 28.

At a special donor conference in Brussels in May, Mali secured pledges of 3.2 billion euros ($4.2 billion) and in return interim president Dioncounda Traore vowed to hold "transparent, open, honest and credible" polls.

A quick election also allows Mali's former colonial power France to withdraw by the end of the year most of the 4,500 troops it sent in January to stop armed Islamists from advancing towards the capital, Bamako.

The problem is that a botched election could be far more destabilising than not having a vote, according to Brussels-based think tank International Crisis Group (ICG), which called in June for a delay of a few weeks.

"Even a credible and technically successful election would not suffice to establish Mali's democracy on a firm foundation, introduce ethics into the practice of public affairs, reconstruct the Malian security services or reconcile the Malian people to each other," ICG's Louise Arbour and Gilles Yabi wrote in a recent report.

"But to therefore resign oneself to having an election that could mobilise well under the 36 percent of the eligible voters who participated in the last presidential vote in 2007 is a peculiar way to encourage democracy in Mali."

Parallel to the Tuareg problem, analysts fear that residual elements of the defeated Islamists will seize the opportunity presented by the election to strike back at the Malian government in a bid to destabilise the peace process.

The ICG has urged Mali's authorities, the UN peacekeeping mission and the French military to prepare for the possibility of terrorist attacks on voting day.