BAMAKO (AFP) – The president of Mali’s election commission has raised doubts over its ability to stage presidential polls seen as essential to restoring democracy to the conflict-scarred country on the planned date of July 28.
A caretaker government announced the vote just one month ago, raising a number of urgent questions over the possibility of free and fair elections in a nation recovering from a coup that paved the way for Islamist rebels to seize control of the north.
“It will be extremely difficult to organise the first round of the presidential election on July 28,” Mamadou Diamountani said late on Thursday.
Diamountani told AFP there were still “many challenges to overcome” before a nationwide vote could take place throughout the west African state.
“Firstly, we have to recognise that the production of polling cards is way behind behind schedule. But this is the only document that allows the voter to vote. It isn’t just an identity card, but also a voter registration card,” he said.
Diamountani added that it would be “extremely difficult” to get up to eight million cards to the electorate in a country where up to 500,000 people have been displaced by armed conflict in the last year.
“It will take more than a month for the cards to get to their owners, because the way the Malian ministry of administration operates is not convincing,” he said.
He highlighted the instability in the northeastern desert town of Kidal, which is occupied by armed Tuareg separatists and still has no army presence despite a ceasefire between the transitional government and the rebels signed on June 18 in Burkina Faso.
Kidal was, he said, “another reason making it extremely difficult, if not impossible” to hold the first round on the specified date.
A Malian minister told AFP on condition of anonymity that “everyone agrees” with Diamountani because “we do not want botched elections”.
The decision to hold the first round on July 28, possibly followed by a second round on August 11, was taken by the Malian government under pressure from the international community, and especially former colonial power France.
But the Tuareg occupation of Kidal has been a major obstacle to organising the election, seen as crucial to Mali’s recovery from the conflict of the past 15 months.
Malian military officers staged a coup in March last year, but the weak army was overpowered by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg front which seized key northern cities before being sidelined by its Al-Qaeda-linked allies.
The MNLA sided with a French-led military intervention, which reclaimed most of the lost territory from the Islamists. But the Tuaregs have been reluctant to allow government troops into Kidal for the vote.
An accord signed in Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou envisages a cessation of hostilities between the Malian army and the MNLA during the election period, with peace talks planned for after the vote.
Analysts have raised a number of problems with securing a long-term ceasefire, such as difficulties monitoring any disarmament and differentiating Tuareg militants from the diverse range of other insurgents holed out in Mali’s north.