Mali’s Elections: First Thoughts on Round Two

It's worth remembering that the outcome of this election will represent stability more than change.

Radio Raheem.

In Mali, it’s taken to be a good sign when a journey begins under the rain. The voting in Bamako yesterday, August 11, began under torrents, keeping people from the polls. When the skies cleared, the voters turned out for the second round in Mali’s hotly contested presidential election, the run-off between ex-Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) and ex-Finance Minister and banker Soumaila Cissé. Although Keita would seem to be the favorite, the official results will take time to emerge. Here are some preliminary thoughts, whoever the eventual victor may be.

The jingle of the 2007 presidential campaign went like this: “ATT, Mali’s president / IBK, the grandson of the prophet / Soumaila Cissé, ringleader of the uncircumcised (bilakorokuntigi).” The actors have hardly changed, since only ATT is offstage and in 2012 he was ineligible anyway. If the presidential election originally scheduled for 2012 and derailed by Captain Amadou Haya Sanogo’s disastrous coup had been held as planned, the same pair would likely have faced each other in a run-off. So it’s remarkable how little has changed after such a dramatic year. IBK is still called “kankelentigi,” the man who means what he says, and he has made that sobriquet his campaign slogan. He’s also the “ce farin” of the 1990s, the “hot” or “strong” Prime Minister who stepped into save President Alpha Oumar Konaré’s flailing regime, to bring a temporary end to a wave of student strikes, and to weather a storm of protests from opposition leaders who refused to recognize Konaré’s government as legitimate. Many Malians recall Keita’s premiership with nostalgia, as the country had become nearly ungovernable, and he stepped up after a series of leaders before him had failed. Many felt he was sure to become president after Konaré left office, and the fact that that did not happen is attributed to a betrayal, a deeper, darker deal between Konaré and ATT, who had led the 1991 coup that opened Konaré’s path to power. Over the last several years, Keita has often given the impression that he too felt that he deserved to be president, and recently he has made no bones about the fact that he would not let the office be stolen from him again. After the 2012 coup, he refused publicly to form a government under the aegis of the junta, but then adopted a more careful and conciliatory stance towards its leadership. He has also carefully gathered support from many different sources. Foreign correspondents refer to him variously as the candidate of France, of “the Islamists,” the junta, and “the South of Mali,” their very confusion attesting to both the murkiness of Malian politics and the need to assign a color to a chameleon. The true color might be that of IBK’s white boubou. Already in 2007, and ever more so in the current crisis, Keita sought the support of the Muslim religious leadership, notably Mahmoud Dicko. While it’s true that some of the oral traditions of the Mande link the ancestors of the Keita clan to the Prophet Mohammed, I always detected a tinge of sarcasim involved in dubbing IBK the “grandson of the prophet,” but it beats being the ringleader of the uncircumcised.

Cissé over the years has tried to define himself as a technocrat who can create employment for Mali’s youth, and he has pursued their votes aggressively. Tough luck, perhaps, that many of the youngest of Mali’s voters–those who became eligible since the last census–were disenfranchised in this election, which was hurriedly prepared. Cissé’s proclaimed affinity for the youth distinguishes him from his competitors–not least because it lets him define himself by an issue rather than by his biography. However, in gerontocratic Mali, it also opens him up for a good deal of ridicule. There’s no better way to insult a man in his 50s than to call him a bilakoro, an uncircumcised boy, as the childrens’ chant of 2007 did (ATT’s “base” was mothers and children). It might be this lack of respect for Cissé, who nonetheless leads the second largest party in Mali, combined with his experience as finance minister, that made him a target of Mali’s rude boys, the junta. In the immediate wake of last year’s coup, his house was ransacked and he himself was badly injured trying to flee. His hostile stance towards the leaders of the coup–e.g., calling early on for ECOWAS intervention–bolstered his democratic credentials abroad, but when many Malians hear “Ministry of Finance” they see money and smell corruption. He polled roughly twenty percent in the first round of this year’s contest, and while he should do better in round two, he failed to win several key endorsements, notably that of Mali’s most powerful party, ADEMA.

Since we know that either Cissé or Keita will be Mali’s next president, we also know who will not. The idea that last year’s coup might open the door for some kind of revolution, or that Sanogo was the son of Sankara, is clearly bankrupt. Closer to the mainstream, although ADEMA remains the sole political party grounded in organization rather than centered around a personality, its 90’s-era hegemony would now seem to be definitively broken. By 2017, the party will have been absent from Kuluba for fifteen years, and while it remains a power in the National Assembly, the fractious nominating processes that have characterized the party in the past (producing current interim president Dioncounda Traore as candidate for the aborted 2012 elections, and relative newcomer Dramane Dembele in 2013) will likely continue to produce fissions within it. Both Soumaila Cissé and IBK split bitterly and vocally with ADEMA, and they have become two of the party’s fiercest competitors (although IBK won Dembele’s endrosement for round two, assuring some ministerial posts for the party whose symbol is the beehive). The party discipline inherited from the US-RDA and the labor movement of the 1950s-1970s looks increasingly like a relic of the past.

Finally, although there are already accusations of corruption and vote-rigging on both sides, there was always very little chance that any outside observers would declare these elections less than free and fair. Mali is not Zimbabwe. Each for their own reasons, the major international players in Mali all wanted elections to go forward, which will allow France to sign off on its intervention and the U.S. to get back into the game by freeing up military and non-humanitarian assistance. Over at the Harlem headquarters of the Association of Malians in New York yesterday, the take away was that whatever happens, Mali won. That’s true, but only in part. Whether Cissé or Keita is elected, the major challenge will be to assert authority within the state and over the army. The time will come to take all that on, but for the moment, it’s worth remembering that the outcome of this election will represent stability more than change.

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