BAMAKO (AFP) – Malians have welcomed news of a July 28 presidential election but serious concerns remain about the possibility of a free and fair vote in Kidal, a key northern city occupied by separatist rebels.
Under pressure from its former colonial power France, which has led a military offensive since January against Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali’s vast desert, the battle-scarred west African nation confirmed the date Monday.
July has always been a goal for the vote, seen as essential to restoring democratic rule after a coup last year paved the way for the Islamist rebels to seize control of Mali’s Saharan cities.
Analysts have argued that the timetable is unrealistic in the still deeply-divided nation, which is emerging from war and an 18-month political crisis which caused 500,000 people to flee to the more stable south or neighbouring countries.
But the insistence of France on a July poll and promises of international aid of 3.2 billion euros ($4.1 billion), appear to have won hearts and minds, with virtually all of Mali’s warring political factions accepting the deadline.
“The pressure is understandable because everyone believes that the current government can not solve the problems,” said Gilles Yabi, of International Crisis Group in Senegalese capital Dakar.
“But it appears that the date itself was more sacred than the holding of credible elections.”
Yabi highlights a number of stumbling blocks to an indisputable result, including the completion of the electoral register and the distribution of new voter cards, and the ongoing uncertainty in Kidal.
The desert city, a key regional capital, is occupied by armed ethnic Tuaregs from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who rose up to fight for independence for the north in January 2012.
They overwhelmed government troops, leading to the coup which toppled elected president Amadou Toumani Toure. Together with hardline Islamists, they seized key northern cities, but were later chased out by their Islamists allies.
France sent troops in January to block an advance by the extremists on Bamako and pushed them out of the main cities and into desert and mountain hideouts, allowing the MNLA back into Kidal.
While French troops control the airport and work with the MNLA in Kidal, the separatists have rejected any suggestion that they should allow Malian military or government into the town.
“Without the presence of the army in Kidal, there will be no elections. This ought to be the leitmotif of every presidential candidate,” an editorial in the Malian newspaper “September 22″ noted on Monday.
“Even civil servants won’t go there without the army and security forces.”
Mali’s interim cabinet has clearly stated that the election must be held “throughout the territory”, a sentiment underlined by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Tuesday in Bamako.
“For France, it is clear that there cannot be two countries within the same country. Arrangements will be made so that in Kidal, you can vote just the same as anywhere else,” he said.
But he did not specify what those arrangements might be.
Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaore is in talks in Ouagadougou with Malian officials and Tuareg leaders from northern Mali to try to clear the way for a country-wide vote.
Meanwhile former Malian prime minister and presidential candidate Sumana Sacko has accused President Francois Hollande of meddling by promising France would ensure Kidal’s residents got to vote.
“Going against the tide of history, the anachronistic comments by President Hollande denote a certain paternalism, even a vague desire to transform Kidal, an integral part of Mali, into a French protectorate,” his party said in a statement.