In Mali, glitches threaten legitimacy of election

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Village residents line the roadside to greet the passing convoy of presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known by his initials 'IBK,' on the road between Mopti and Bandiagara, Mali, Sunday, July 21, 2013. Candidates are traveling the country holding rallies as they head into the final week of campaigning ahead of Mali's July 28 presidential vote. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Oumou Sangare is used to getting what she wants. Unlike most of the people lined up outside the election office here, the wife of Mali's former ambassador to the United Nations is not accustomed to hearing the word 'no.'

Yet that's exactly what the elegant, middle-aged woman heard earlier this week after making her way to the front of the line of would-be voters who, due to a technical glitch, don't appear on the voter list for the upcoming presidential election.

Clutching her designer handbag, she stood on tiptoes in her petite heels, straining to peer through the open window of the election headquarters, where a clerk typed her name into a database.

"I'm the wife of the ambassador," she pleaded after the screen came back blank. "I've been voting for years," she said. "Am I not going to be able to vote?"

Mali's presidential election is set to go ahead on Sunday despite massive logistical and technical lapses, including a voters' roll which inexplicably is missing the names of tens of thousands of registered voters. Those being disenfranchised include both the rich and the poor, and worried election officials say the stage is being set for the results to be contested.

The July 28 election is the first to be held since last year's coup, and the international community has pressured Mali to hold the ballot hoping to return the nation to constitutional rule. Over $4 billion dollars in aid pledged by donors for Mali's reconstruction is on hold until a legitimately elected government is installed, a main factor which has pushed authorities to go ahead with the poll. Yet the problems with the electoral list as well as security and logistical challenges in the north of the country risk robbing the future president of the very legitimacy the election is seeking to restore.

According to figures provided by the National Independent Electoral Commission, the voter database includes no 18-year-olds, a lapse representing between 100,000 and 300,000 potential voters. There are 226 villages of 1,000 people or more, where just a single voter is enrolled. In another 406 villages, there are no more than five. For the entire nation of Morocco, an important destination for Malians migrants, only 39 voters show up in the database. And less than five percent of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled to neighboring countries amid last year's conflict are so far enrolled.

"Malian and U.N. officials keep saying this election won't be perfect, which is a little like saying that a Metallica concert won't be quiet," wrote anthropologist and Mali expert Bruce Whitehouse in his blog. "Let's cut to the chase: Mali will not be prepared for elections 30 days from now. If the vote isn't delayed, all signs point to an electoral shambles that could spark yet another crisis."

According to the latest figures from the electoral commission, more than 6.8 million people are enrolled to vote, nearly the same as in 2007, the last time Malians elected a president. It's unclear how many of those who registered will succeed in retrieving their voter ID cards, though election officials are already predicting a significant number will be unable to vote.

The cards are required to be shown at the time of voting, and even those who have received them face additional hurdles because the cards were rushed to the printer before the location of polling stations was finalized. The cards do not have the address of the polling station, meaning that voters will not know where to go to vote.

The government is advertising a hotline number, where voters can send a text message to receive the location. It's a problematic solution in a country where two-thirds of men and four-fifths of women can't read. A final challenge is the uncertainty over Kidal, the country's northernmost province which remains largely outside of government control.

Despite these challenges, Gen. Siaka Sangare, who heads the election headquarters, says he remains cautiously optimistic because the problems with the voter list are due to human error, not fraud.

"The voter registration process was flawed, seriously flawed. And we can't get around this. These are the 'genetic' weaknesses of our voter roll. The voter roll was born with genetic deformities," said Sangare in his office, only a few dozen yards from where increasingly frustrated citizens were lining up to complain about their missing ID cards. "But you can't say that because of the voter list, you can't hold the election," adding that the list meets international norms in terms of being inclusive and traceable.

The head of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Mali, Bert Koenders, said that he, too, remains optimistic. "If I go out on the street I sense a great enthusiasm for these elections. People want to turn the page."

Among the loudest critics of the upcoming election are the very people charged with organizing it. Inside the country's cramped National Independent Electoral Commission offices, the commission's vice-president Issaga Kampo balanced a laptop on his knees to look at a spreadsheet. He ticked off the names of localities where the number of people in the database is far inferior to the number known to have registered.

"I am worried for Mali. For our people," said Kampo. "If the election is botched, it will lead to violence, to loss of life."

The election is ultimately in the hands of people like Mrs. Sangare and the others crowded outside the election office, say experts. It depends on how loudly they, and the candidates they support, wish to protest their exclusion, says Whitehouse.

As the sun was rising outside the election headquarters on a recent morning, Sangare reached the head of the line. She climbed on top of a rock placed at the bottom of the window in an effort to see better into the office. She balanced on top of it in her pink heels. When the election workers realized who she was, they invited her to leave the line and come inside. That was the only thing they could do for her.

"What is your father's name?" asked the clerk, trying to use a different search term after failing to find her name. "Armand Ahmed Ousman Sangare," she replied. "He's also a former ambassador."

There was no record of her father. Nor of her mother. Nor even of her husband, the ambassador. The people lining up began getting annoyed. One man angrily yelled out that she was holding them up.

With no success, she left the way she had come, skirting the puddles of mud in her dainty heels.


Associated Press writer Baba Ahmed in Bamako, Mali contributed to this report.