Nearly a year and a half after a coup brought down its elected government, inadvertently paving the way for the takeover of the northern two-thirds of the country by ethnic separatists temporarily aligned with al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate and other extremists, and seven months after a French-led military intervention turned back the insurgents, scattering the militants across the Sahel, Mali is scheduled to hold a presidential election Sunday. Diplomats hope it will halt—if not quite reverse—the West African country’s free fall from what then-US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had hailed as “a model of stability and democracy in sub-Saharan Africa” to a failed state struggling for its very survival.

The poll, being contested by some twenty-seven candidates—including, in addition to the brace of former prime ministers and a former head of the regional monetary union, who are widely viewed as the only truly viable candidates, the sole woman in the race and the self-described “only Mormon in Mali”—is perhaps more important to the international community than to Malians. France has pushed hard for the vote, sending Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to Bamako twice in the last two months to make sure the election was held on time so as to permit the French to proceed with the withdrawal of most of the 4,500 troops they deployed to stop the Islamist advance. To pick up the baton from the departing French troops, the United Nations recently deployed what will be its third-largest peacekeeping force, the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). But the world body wants the political cover for its mission which it hopes an elected government can provide. And the United States, which earlier this year established a drone base in neighboring Niger to keep an eye on the militants dispersing from Mali, wants constitutional order restored so that nearly $200 million in military and development assistance, frozen since the coup last year, can be released. 

The difficulty, however, is that there is almost universal agreement on the part of analysts of regional politics and elections experts that the rush to the polls will result in a rather flawed process—a rather peculiar roadmap for restoring democracy in any country. For weeks, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) has been citing numerous “imperfections” with technical preparations in an apparent effort to preemptively exculpate itself from blame in the event of a debacle. As a result, the minister of territorial administration, who got his job because he was the deputy to the captain who led the March 2012 putsch, is now, somewhat ironically, in charge of the poll that is supposed the restore the country’s democratic credentials. 

Former Foreign Minister Tiébile Dramé, who has served as a UN mediator in a number of African crises over the last two decades, last week withdrew his candidacy, citing the lack of an environment conducive to a free and fair election. The UN itself admits that more than a fifth of the population in the conflict-ridden north of the country, some 400,000 people, are still displaced and will not be able to participate in the vote. Drew Hinshaw of the Wall Street Journal reported from Timbuktu this week that the electoral rolls are in such a poor state that in 226 towns, only one voter was registered, while 443 other municipalities had two voters. It is impossible to imagine a scenario where overall turnout will exceed the lackadaisical 29 percent of eligible voters that has been the average participation rate since the advent of multiparty politics in Mali in the early 1990s. On top of these questions, there concerns that, while the extremists may have been dislodged from the major northern population centers they had controlled until recently, they might nonetheless view polling stations, voters, election officials, and security personnel as targets too tempting to resist, especially with all the international media attention that will be focused on them.

And even if things go smoothly enough on Sunday as well as on August 11, the date scheduled for the run-off between the top two candidates in the event no contender wins an outright majority in the first-round of voting, the political legitimacy of the elected president may be “good enough” for the purposes of the international community, but the overall result will be far fromsufficient to rescue Mali from its failed state status, much less sustain it on the long path back to some modicum of security and stability. 

The issues which the new head of state will have to address are legion. They include the need to quickly expand his base of support by appointing a broadly inclusive government and organizing as soon as practical legislative elections to return a parliament with which to begin rebuilding some semblance of constitutional governance in the country; the role of the military in the future of the country (the army crumbled before the insurgent onslaught before it staged the coup, the leader of which, Amadou Haya Sanogo, was subsequently appointed by Mali’s interim president to head the national commission for security sector reform); the persistent ethnic tensions between Mali’s majority southerners and the Tuareg and other groups in the sparsely-populated northern part of the country (where, as Africa Center senior fellow Rudolph Atallah has warned, persistent marginalization leaves grievances which al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups will continue to exploit); the corruption and criminal associations endemic in certain segments of the Malian political elite, both before the coup and continuing since then, pathologies which are likely to worsen as well-connected interests seek to capture the billions of dollars in aid which have been pledged to the country as a result of the crisis; and the profound sense of alienation which many ordinary Malians have with respect to their country’s institutions and whom events in the last two years have shown to be dangerously receptive to both uniformed putschists and violent fundamentalists.

Consequently, Mali’s international partners will need to be realistic about expectations for the presidential election and its eventual winner as well as the amount of engagement and commitment it will take to drag the country back from the precipice over which it has tumbled. They will also need to be attentive to the threat which, as an unintended (if not unforeseen) consequence of the French-led intervention has been spread across the region—witness the plight of Niger which, in May, suffered suicide attacks against a military base and a French-run uranium mine, followed the next month by a jailbreak that freed several terrorist suspects and, more recently, the arrival of thousands of refugees from the Nigerian government’s military offensive against Boko Haram, some of whose members had been at training camps in northern Mali—and find adequate resources to shore up other vulnerable states in the Sahel. Thus Sunday’s vote will, at best, be a first step on what will be a very long road ahead, one with more than a few potentially treacherous turns.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.

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