Opposition to Mali’s Proposed Referendum Continues

Reuters:

Thousands of Malians took to the streets on Saturday to protest against a planned referendum on constitutional changes that would give extra powers to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, create new regions and recognise the Tuareg’s ethnic homeland.

Mali’s government has delayed the vote, which was originally planned for last week, but still plans to go ahead with it this year. Activists are unsettled by provisions that would enable the president to nominate a quarter of the Senate and remove the prime minister at will.

I’ve been following the referendum here on the blog – the opposition and protests it evoked last month, the decision to delay it, and the new court order to rewrite it and remove certain ambiguities. The latest protests underscore two things – the way in which the referendum fight is becoming a dress rehearsal for next year’s presidential election, and the current of opposition against the idea of going much further in the direction of giving the north a special status.

For a government, pro-referendum perspective, it’s worth reading this interview (French) with Minister of Justice Mamadou Ismaël Konaté. In one exchange, he gives three reasons for supporting the referendum. Here are two (the third has to do with public accounts and decentralization):

First of all, this Constitution is running out of steam and it showed obvious signs of “non-performance” when, after the overthrow of the regime in 2012, it was not capable to make a clear distinction between the interim period and that of transition…Next, the two-term presidential limit was not very precise with regard to the possibility for a president of the Republic, having undertaken two consecutive terms, or even alternating ones, to come back, at a later time, to ask for a third term.

I don’t know the mind of the opposition, but I doubt they will be swayed by such arguments – the minister’s points do not touch on the most hotly contested issues, namely those having to do with presidential powers, the creation of a senate, and autonomy for the north. The minister goes on to make a case that the referendum can and should be held as a democratic exercise, and that there is something anti-democratic in the opposition’s choice of protests, sit-ins at the Constitutional Court, etc. I doubt the opposition would be swayed by such arguments either – they might respond that such actions are part of democracy writ large, part of the exercise of free assembly and protest. At the same time, one could read the opposition’s protests as a signal that they fear they would/will lose the vote, once it is held, and so they are seeking to block it from ever coming to a vote.

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Mali: New Developments Around the Referendum

The Malian government hopes to hold a constitutional referendum that would increase presidential powers and would create a Senate. Initially, the referendum’s path ran smooth: on June 3 (French), the National Assembly voted 111-35 approving the proposed text, and on June 6 (French), the Constitutional Court affirmed the constitutionality of the text. But then opposition parties and civil society activists mounted significant protests against the idea – enough to prompt the Malian government to postpone the referendum indefinitely.

Now, it looks like the referendum will re-travel the same circuit. With the opposition formally challenging the constitutionality of the referendum, the Constitutional Court weighed in again (French). This time, once more, the court upheld the basic constitutionality of the proposed referendum. The court rejected the opposition’s argument that because of widespread insecurity in northern and central Mali, the country lacks the territorial integrity that the 1992 constitution makes a necessary condition for holding any such vote. However, the court did accept the opposition’s arguments on other points – noting, for example (French), that the proposed referendum text does not state the tenure of certain senators. Two-thirds of the proposed senators will be elected and will serve five years, but the text does not currently say how long the one-third who are appointed by the president will serve. To rectify the omission, the court has returned the text to the National Assembly for redrafting. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta has said he is committed to the passage of the referendum.

If the legal issues are partly resolved, the political conflict is not. The opposition remains committed to defeating the referendum – preferably, for the opposition, by preventing it from coming to a vote at all. To that effect, the anti-referendum coalition is planning (French) “a national march, a sit-in in front of the Constitutional Court, a series of meetings with the accredited diplomatic corps in Mali, ‘dead city days’ [i.e., general strikes], and civil disobedience.”

Mali’s Delayed Referendum: A Victory for the Opposition?

About two weeks ago I wrote about Mali’s constitutional referendum, which was originally scheduled for July 9. The referendum, backed by President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, would expand presidential powers and create a Senate.

At a cabinet meeting on June 21, however, Keita’s government postponed the referendum to a date as yet undetermined. (A video summary of the cabinet’s decisions can be found here, with reference to the postponement around the 2:00 mark.)

The government gave no reasons for the delay, but some Malian observers (French) are calling the postponement a “victory for the opposition” – an opposition that opposes not just Keita but also the referendum. Worth noting is that pushback against the referendum came not just from Keita’s enemies but also from some of his allies, including three parties (French) that asked for a delay and a rethinking of the proposed changes. These parties are l’Alliance pour la démocratie au Mali (The Alliance for Democracy in Mali, Adema), le Congrès national d’initiative démocratique (The National Congress of Democratic Initiative, Cnid), and le Yelema (meaning “change” in Bambara, a widely spoken language in Mali). The referendum had also evoked street demonstrations and a significant civil society mobilization.

Faced with all that, IBK may have begun to fear that his side might lose the referendum or that it would too close to risk going forward. It seems now that the proposed text will be reworked so as to garner broader support – or, more drastically, perhaps it will be shelved altogether.

It’s also possible that the June 18 attack outside the capital Bamako played a role in the government’s decision. With renewed international focus on insecurity throughout much of the country, and with renewed questions about whether it is even possible to hold a fair referendum under current security conditions, it makes sense to postpone the vote.

Details on Mali’s July 9 Constitutional Referendum

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.