On July 9, Malians will vote “yes” or “no” on a referendum that would, if passed, modify the 1992 Constitution. The referendum would create a Senate, allow the President to appoint some “traditional leaders” to the Senate, and provide the president with additional authorities to implement the 2015 Algiers Accord that is meant to create a lasting peace in northern Mali. (More details on the referendum here, in French.) The referendum has been in the works for at least several months (French).
The formal campaign period begins June 23, but the informal campaign has already begun. The campaign and the composition of the “yes” and “no” sides could offer something of a preview of the 2018 presidential elections, when incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will likely seek a second term.
In terms of the legal process, the referendum has already cleared two hurdles: it was approved by the required two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it has been cleared by the Constitutional Court (French, .pdf). Some Malian commentators (French) have disagreed with the Court, arguing that the referendum cannot legally be held because of constitutional requirements that Mali enjoy territorial integrity before it proceeds with such a vote. In the eyes of those commentators, what the Court calls “residual insecurity” in northern Mali (p. 3) is something much more serious, namely a state of affairs that will prevent many central and northern Malians from voting, and will prevent politicians from effectively campaigning. Personally, I don’t see how a representative referendum could be held under the present circumstances.
In terms of the politics of the referendum, important opposition figures declared at a June 8 press conference (French) that they will be campaigning for a “no” vote. The opposition objects to both the timing and the content of the referendum; in particular, they denounce the expansion of presidential powers that the constitutional changes would bring.
Political opposition to the referendum has been expressed not just in press conferences, but also in street demonstrations. According to one account (French), demonstrators at an attempted protest on Saturday were “roughed up” and “confined like sheep” by the security forces.
In sum, signs of opposition to the referendum are quite visible, but given the uncertainties of who will get to vote (geographically speaking) and the lack of opinion polls, it’s very unclear to me what the likely result is. I will say that historically speaking, incumbents often do have considerable influence over such referenda in West Africa and the Sahel.
As a final note, it’s interesting to put Mali in regional perspective when it comes to the question of creating a Senate. Leaders in several of Mali’s neighbors moved to abolish Senates in recent years: Senegal closed its Senate in 2012. Mauritania‘s president wants to scrap the Senate there, although the Senate rejected plans for its own demise and now the issue is set to be decided in a referendum (French) to be held July 15, just six days after Mali’s. In Burkina Faso, longtime ruler Blaise Compaore’s plans to recreate that country’s upper house were quashed (French) after a popular revolution overthrew him in 2014. Niger and Guinea lack Senates, and the recently created Senate in Cote d’Ivoire is something of an exception (French) to the continental rule. The last of Mali’s neighbors, Algeria, does have a Senate, so perhaps we’ll say that Mali is not a total outlier, but its government is in a minority of African governments that actively want to add a new chamber to their parliaments.