Mali goes to polls under threat of Islamist violence

BAMAKO, Mali – Malians voted on Sunday, November 24, in parliamentary elections intended to seal the troubled west African nation's return to democracy but overshadowed by the threat of Islamist reprisals.

The polls mark Mali's first steps to recovery after it was plunged into chaos by a military coup in March last year, and finalize a process that begun with the election of its first post-conflict leader in August.

"I wanted to express my joy at coming to vote," President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita said after casting his ballot in the capital Bamako.

"If you had told me a few months ago that we would be staging parliamentary elections, I would have thought I was dreaming. But this is reality. Mali is standing on its own 2 feet and moving forward," he added.

Some 6.5 million Malians are eligible to cast ballots for a new national assembly, with more than 1,000 candidates running for 147 seats – but turnout initially looked weak across the country.

"I see... that there are not many people here – the candidates weren't able to mobilize – but I hope that in the afternoon, there will be more people," said Oumou Sawadogo, a voter at a polling station set up in a school in the capital Bamako.

In another voting center, Boubacar Tembely said he had come to do his "civic duty" despite feeling bitter about how little progress has been made in Mali.

"The politicians are all the same. I left my ballot blank as a protest to them," he told AFP.

Voting takes place amid an upsurge in violence by Al-Qaeda-linked rebels who stalk the vast northern desert, an ever-present danger to French and African troops who are tasked with providing security for the election alongside the Malian army.

Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents ousted by French and African troops in January from the northern towns they had occupied last year resumed their deadly insurgency on September 28, after a lull of several months.

Since then, a dozen civilians as well as Malian and Chadian soldiers in the United Nations' MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have been killed in the country's vast desert north while French security personnel were targeted for the first time last week.

Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on the largely lawless region of Kidal, occupied for 5 months by ethnic Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord signed in June allowed in the Malian army.

In a grisly reminder for the West of the ongoing security crisis, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) on November 2 kidnapped and shot dead 2 French radio journalists who had come to the regional capital, also called Kidal. 

Ballot box thefts

Voting began in an atmosphere of calm across the north, according to witnesses contacted by AFP from Bamako.

"It's going well here. The only problem is that there is no rush at the moment. In some polling stations, there are even more election officials that voters," said the town's local electoral commission head.

Turnout was also weak in Gao, the largest northern city, while officials in polling stations near the historic caravan city of Timbuktu reported the thefts of ballot boxes, several by an elected official and at least one by an unidentified armed gang.

UN peacekeepers, the Malian army and French troops are tasked with ensuring voters' safety in the region, the stronghold of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Malians are voting for a new parliament following the 2012 coup that toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure and created an opening that allowed the MNLA and groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.

The ruling Rally for Mali (RPM) party has vowed to deliver "a comfortable majority" to smoothe the way for the reforms Keita plans to put in place to rebuild Mali's stagnant economy and soothe simmering ethnic tensions in the north.

Louis Michel, head of the EU's mission observation mission, told reporters at a polling station in Bamako he was impressed with the organization of the vote and the even spread of men and women casting ballots.

"Election officials know what they are doing. Everything seems to be going as it should. From a logistical point of view, I didn't observe anything unusual," he said.

He said unrest in the north should not be a bar to successful elections there.

A second round will take place on December 15 if no party is able to form a government following Sunday's vote. – Rappler.com