Since Lieutenant-Colonel Amadou Toumani Touré overthrew the authoritarian regime of Moussa Traoré in 1991, Mali has embarked in one of the most promising democratization process in sub-Saharan Africa. A new constitution drawn in 1992 opened the political system, allowing parties from across the spectrum to freely organize and participate in competitive elections. Civil society expanded considerably, making inroads in the areas of advocacy and service delivery; and Mali’s media environment has become one of the freest in Africa despite a lack of resources and professional training for journalists. Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press Index has, indeed, consistently rated Mali as “Free” in recent years, while Reporters Without Borders ranked the country as the second freest in Africa on its 2011-2012 index, behind Namibia.
Mali has held four general elections since 1992 and is about to enter its fifth electoral cycle with presidential polls scheduled for April 29. Among the main candidates are Dioncounda Traoré (at left), Speaker of the National Assembly and president of the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (ADEMA), the country’s dominant party since the advent of democracy, and Soumaïla Cissé, a founding member of ADEMA who now runs the Union for the Republic and Democracy, the country’s second largest party. While the 1997 re-election of then President Alpha Konaré was marred by an opposition boycott, analysts agree that Mali’s electoral process has been relatively transparent.
Despite this positive assessment, Mali’s democratic outlook is fraught with short- and long-term threats. A recurrent Tuareg rebellion has struck Mali’s northern regions for the fourth time since independence from France in 1960. Led primarily by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, rebels launched a military offensive on January 17 that caused the death of scores of civilians and soldiers alike, in addition to displacing at least 60,000 people internally. Thousands more fled to neighboring countries. Social tensions are now emerging in Mali’s largest cities, including Bamako, with angry mobs attacking homes and businesses owned by Tuareg and other minorities.
The Tuareg people have led a long struggle for greater regional autonomy and a fairer allocation of resources from the Malian state. Some political leaders are now wondering if the elections should be postponed fearing that the deteriorating security situation in the north would prevent voters from turning out.
Mali’s institutional limitations may also be problematic in the long run. The country’s political landscape is very fragmented and most parties remain organizationally weak and built around strong personalities rather than distinct platforms. To date, over 100 parties are registered but fewer than a dozen have sizable constituencies. To understand these parties’ tenuous position in Malian politics, one could only look at the career of outgoing President Amadou Toumani Touré, also known as ATT. He has never belonged to a political party and yet managed to get elected twice – comfortably – as an independent candidate.
ATT has often been lauded for his consensual and restrained governing style, and deservedly so for the most part. But in a country ranked among the world’s ten poorest, cash-strapped legislators and party leaders are vulnerable to co-option by the executive branch. To cite a well-know example, no fewer than 24 candidates ran for the 2002 presidential election but once ATT was elected, the majority of them entered his government. It’s hard to imagine, in this context, how the National Assembly can reliably oversee the executive branch and defend the interests of the Malian people.
No one denies that the sheer openness of Malian society, symbolized by its community radios spread throughout much of the territory, makes the country a welcoming place for democracy. And the world should be grateful for ATT’s resolve to leave office at the end of his second term, in sharp contrast to his Senegalese counterpart. But one should not lose sight of Mali’s institutional weaknesses, nor assume that all future presidents will be as restrained as ATT. Constitutional amendments that would expand the president’s power – notably by enabling that individual to sack the prime minister – and add an upper house to the legislature will be put to a referendum on the same day as the presidential election. An ongoing debate on the virtues of meaningful checks and balances remains necessary.