Mali election raises hopes and fears

In the week before Mali’s presidential elections, the West African country’s interim president insisted that voting now is the only way to secure the fragile peace in the country.

“The election will not be perfect, not least as this is a country emerging from a crisis,” said President Dioncounda Traoré, “but I am deeply convinced that we can organize free and fair elections.”

Mali is heading to the polls today following an 18-month crisis that saw a rebellion, military coup and huge swaths of its northern territory taken by Islamist radicals, before being pushed out by French forces. The election is supposed to bring stability, but many feel the country is not ready — the number of registered voters is much lower than those eligible — and worry that the new government will be seen as illegitimate.

“The election risks being marred by such technical shortcomings, and with such a low rate of participation, that a new president could be deprived of the legitimacy necessary to lead a confused and weakened country back onto the road to stability and development,” said International Crisis Group, a think tank, earlier this month.

Violence persists, despite government talks with representatives of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) Tuareg rebels, a militant group representing an ethnic minority in Mali’s north, who have ties Islamist radicals, including al Qaeda.

Last week, four people were killed in ethnic violence and a homemade bomb was found in Kidal, an unstable city outside of government control. A Tuareg leader was arrested, allegedly involved in the abduction of five electoral officers and one city official. (They have seen been released and are doing “well,” reports Agence France-Presse).

As French military engagement winds down — the forces are being deployed across countries to pursue al-Qaeda affiliated groups — 12,000 UN peacekeepers will take their place, the third largest UN mission in the world. The peacekeepers are tasked with keeping the political process in Mali on track.