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Rebellion-Hit Mali Holds Election in Bid to Unlock Aid

French soldiers patrol a street in Gao, Mali on Feb. 28, 2013. While the French offensive drove the radicals into hiding, a pattern of guerilla-style fighting to retake the liberated city of Gao has emerged. Photographer: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
French soldiers patrol a street in Gao, Mali on Feb. 28, 2013. While the French offensive drove the radicals into hiding, a pattern of guerilla-style fighting to retake the liberated city of Gao has emerged. Photographer: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

Hit by an army coup, a rebellion by Islamist and Touareg militants and French military intervention, Malians vote on July 28 in a presidential election that may satisfy international donors more than Malians themselves.

The electoral commission in the West African nation said this month that it’s going to be “extremely difficult” for all 6.9 million eligible voters to cast a ballot. At least half a million citizens have fled their homes in the north to the south or to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

“The main question is one of degree -- whether the vote is ‘good enough’ to underpin a legitimate national government, or so flawed that it exacerbates existing tensions,” Jolyon Ford, political analyst at U.K.-based Oxford Analytica, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

International donors say a vote must be held before they can start providing as much as $4 billion in aid pledged in May. Mali, Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, has been gripped by conflict for more than a year after an ethnic Touareg uprising in the north prompted underequipped soldiers to overthrow the government. After the Touaregs linked up with Islamist militants in an offensive that almost split the nation in half, former colonial ruler France started an air and ground campaign to drive them out of the main northern cities.

Holding the elections now is “a monumental mistake and a political error,” Moussa Djire, a political science professor at the University of Bamako in the capital, said in an interview. “The new government will face criticism for a long time after being elected because it will be accused of giving in to pressure from the international community.”

Run-off Expected

Frontrunners among the 27 candidates in the first presidential vote since 2007 are ex-prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 68, and 64-year-old Soumaila Cisse, a former finance minister and ex-commission chairman of the West African Monetary Union. Interim ruler Dioncounda Traore isn’t eligible to run for president under an accord brokered by international mediators last year.

A run-off on Aug. 11 is expected because the first round won’t produce an outright victory, according to a poll conducted in June by the Bamako-based Center for Statistical Studies and Applied Informatics. The survey of 1,057 people found that 40 percent of voters didn’t have a preferred candidate.

“The elections can improve Mali’s international reputation, foreign investors will have confidence in us again,” Dieudonne Dacko, a 28-year-old massage therapist, said in a June 15 interview in Bamako. “In terms of domestic politics, I don’t think anything will change. Corruption and nepotism will remain because we are seeing the same politicians as before.”

Aid Pledge

French President Francois Hollande and the European Union have insisted that the elections should be held this month.

The election “appears to be seen as a box to be ticked before the political class and international partners can get down to do serious business,” Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which recommended a delay of three months, said on its website.

The argument in favor of elections is Mali’s need for funds as people complain about soaring food prices, political insecurity and a lack of jobs as a result of the collapse of the tourist industry, Djire said.

“One has to take into account that the current government is struggling with protests from civil society and an economy that has stagnated since international aid was halted,” he said.

Gold Mining

Mali’s $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.2 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It may expand 4.8 percent this year because gold mining hasn’t been affected by the fighting, according to the fund. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among the miners in Mali.

In a July 8 speech on the state-owned broadcaster ORTM, interim leader Dioncounda Traore urged people to respect the election date and let the vote run smoothly.

“By scheduling this date, we knew we were going to face a real challenge,” he said. “The faster the new government will be installed, the sooner it can deal with the crisis.”

Issues that can’t be negotiated until after the election are the disarmament of Touareg fighters loyal to the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the MNLA, around the remote town of Kidal, 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north of Bamako and the degree of autonomy over the area they may demand.

UN Peacekeepers

The MNLA was able to retain a stronghold in Kidal amid claims the Malian army discriminates against the Touareg people. Mali’s military denies the allegations. The fighters won’t disarm until a peace accord has been reached following the vote.

A UN mission deployed this month with African soldiers that have been in Mali since January. The force is scheduled to have 11,200 troops by the end of the year.

Malian officials last month began registering voters among 175,000 refugees sheltering in camps in neighboring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, according to the UN refugee agency.

Many refugees from northern Mali, notably ethnic Touaregs who sympathize with the MNLA and allied groups, may boycott the elections altogether, according to Ferdaous Bouhlel, an anthropologist at the University of Tours, France, who specializes in the nomadic Touareg culture.

“They do not feel concerned by this process at all and besides, they are telling me they haven’t even received voter cards yet,” she said by phone from the Mauritanian capital, Nouakchott.

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