Yesterday, 16 August, Mali’s Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization announced official results from the second round of Mali’s presidential elections. The first round, held 29 July, narrowed the field to two candidates – incumbent President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK) and long-time opposition candidate and former Finance Minister Soumaïla Cissé. The first round results gave IBK approximately 41% of the vote to Cissé’s nearly 18%, leaving around 41% of the electorate undecided. The second round was held on 12 August. The official results from the second round give IBK 67.17% to Cissé’s 32.83%. Turnout is estimated at 34.5%, which is dismayingly low but which is also in line with turnout figures from previous Malian elections, especially in the second round.
How did IBK win, especially in the face of Mali’s terrible problems? Three factors occur to me so far, though the list is surely non-exhaustive.
First, and most immediately, the opposition did not rally around Cissé in the second round. As I discussed here, in Francophone West Africa’s two-round systems, an opposition candidate hoping to oust an incumbent almost always needs a wave of endorsements and alliances between the first and second rounds if that candidate is to win. That bandwagon effect did not happen for Cissé – the lower-scoring candidates almost all stayed neutral, with some of them professing open derision for both IBK and Cissé. Fourth-place finisher Cheick Modibo Diarra, for example, said on 10 August in a communiqué (French), “My belief remains that neither the one nor the other corresponds to our ideal of change. To replace Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta with Soumaïla Cissé is not an alternation, it is not change for us, it is nothing more and nothing less than a game of musical chairs.”
Diarra, a former acting prime minister, may not be in the best position to denounce games of musical chairs – but the sentiment he expressed may have been more widely shared by voters. Clearly, if we go by official results, many people saw no point in voting; insecurity in northern and central Mali can explain some of the low turnout, but some of it should be attributed to apathy/cynicism/disgust as well. Cissé was unable to convince sufficient numbers of elites or voters that he represented a credible alternative to the political status quo. There is a broader fatigue, it seems, with the whole political class, and IBK benefits from that fatigue in the sense that he won almost by default. The devil you know, etc.
Second, it’s worth according a role – although I’m still thinking through how big of one – to current Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga (let’s call him SBM). Since SBM, a former intelligence chief and defense minister, was appointed in December 2017, various observers have seen that appointment in the context of the then-upcoming elections. According to these theories (and here I’m mixing in some of what I heard on short trips to Bamako in January and March of this year), SBM’s appointment had a triple purpose: (a) removing a potentially formidable competitor from the field of presidential candidates, (b) appointing someone seen as more competent and well-connected than the cycle of short-lived prime ministers IBK had run through since 2013, and (c) appointing someone from the north (Gao) with a mandate to making the political and logistical arrangements necessary to have a credible and victorious election throughout the whole country and especially in the north. The north is obviously not the most populated part of the country, but it seems IBK was keen to (a) have the election take place there at all, at least to an extent that would satisfy foreign powers, and (b) to win there, likely to argue that he had a truly national mandate. SBM, through visits to the north and the center, as well as through numerous visits abroad, may have played a key role in convincing various elites (domestic and foreign) that a second term for IBK would be better for them than any realistic alternative. Worth noting too, with regard to the north, is that many of the leading politicians there, despite past or current involvement with rebellions and past or current tensions with the central government, are nevertheless members of the ruling party. In any case, SBM’s appointment seems to have both accelerated and clarified some of the intra-elite agreements that have allowed IBK to take a second term.
Third, we obviously have to take the issue of fraud very seriously – or, because “fraud” conveys a narrow sense of same-day ballot-box stuffing and tampering with vote tallies, let’s use the broader term of manipulation. It’s hard to sort through all the allegations (example) that voter blocs were bought and paid for (especially in the north), that backroom deals were struck, etc. But the allegations are widespread (as is the satirical commentary), and Cissé himself has rejected the results (even before they were published). A rejoinder might be that opposition candidates in West Africa (and in Africa more broadly) regularly call foul when official results are released – but that doesn’t mean those candidates are always wrong! The question, really, is to what extent IBK’s people used the levers of incumbency to make deals that predetermined or influenced the outcome. It’s hard for me to say, but I think two points stand out: (a) if IBK’s people did manipulate the process, they were not confident enough about their power/position to blatantly rig the results, especially in the first round; and, relatedly, (b) if IBK’s people did manipulate the process, they were careful to ensure that it would still be credible enough for the international community to accept the outcome. The domestic arena is not the only one that matters, after all.
Hopefully, the availability of more precise voting data in the coming days and weeks will shed further light on these questions and on other mechanics of IBK’s victory. For now, though, Malians and outsiders will be pondering what the next five years will bring for the country.
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