On Sunday, Malian citizens will participate in a vote to pass judgment on the constitution proposed by the ruling junta, raising speculation about the ambitions of the country’s authoritarian leader to seek election.
Following a decade of instability marked by jihadist insurgencies and political and economic crises, the West African nation has been under military rule since an August 2020 coup.
Approximately 8.4 million citizens are eligible to cast their vote, deciding “yes” or “no” on the draft constitution. This electoral test is significant for Colonel Assimi Goita, the 40-year-old leader, who has pledged to restore civilian rule and hold elections in 2024.
Voting will commence at 0800 GMT, and the results are expected to be announced within 72 hours.
However, historically, voter turnout has been low in Mali, a country with a population of 21 million. Many citizens have grown weary of the persistent instability, while others face the direct threat of jihadist attacks in central and northern regions.
The issue of security remains a constant concern, with the risk of potential attacks. Consequently, the vote will not take place in certain parts of the country, including the northern stronghold of Kidal, which is held by former rebels.
The junta will be evaluated based on voter turnout as an indication of its ability to restore stability and gauge the public’s enthusiasm for its agenda.
The New Constitution as a Solution to Mali’s Challenges
The junta has presented the new constitution as the solution to Mali’s longstanding challenges. The country’s troubles began in 2012 when separatist insurgents in the north, who had felt marginalized by the southern government, joined forces with Al-Qaeda-linked Islamists to seize significant territories.
France, the former colonial power, intervened to push back the Islamists, but attacks have persisted. Subsequently, Mali shifted its alliance from Paris to Russia and its Wagner mercenaries.
Disputed parliamentary elections in March 2020, along with mass protests against a government incapable of curbing the insurgency, corruption, and economic crisis, culminated in a coup.
Initially, Goita appointed an interim president but later ousted him in a second coup in 2021, assuming the top position himself. Concerns have now arisen regarding Goita’s commitment to stepping down next year.
On Friday, Mali’s ruling junta demanded the immediate withdrawal of the United Nations peacekeeping mission, a contentious actor in the security crisis that has resulted in the deaths of nearly 200 peacekeepers over the past decade.
The military rulers of the African nation had increasingly imposed operational limitations on the peacekeepers and ultimately accused the mission of not only being a “failure” but also part of the problem.
Strengthening the Presidency
The proposed constitution aims to enhance the role of the president, granting the authority to appoint and dismiss the prime minister and cabinet members.
Under the new document, the government would be accountable to the president instead of parliament, as stipulated in the current 1992 constitution.
Additionally, the new constitution would provide amnesty to individuals involved in previous coups, reform the oversight of public finances, and mandate that members of parliament and senators declare their assets, aiming to combat corruption.
Some believe that those who oppose these provisions suspect Goita will run for the elections in 2024, according to Bamako University sociologist Brema Ely Dicko.
Goita, a former commander in the special forces who actively participated in the 2012 rebellion, prefers to stay away from public attention and is known for his aversion to publicity.
According to Dicko, public opinion in Bamako holds a favorable view of the president.
Political scientist Abdoul Sogodogo stated that Goita has attained an iconic status and significant popularity by maintaining political and verbal silence.
Observers predict an almost certain vote in favor of the proposed reform.
Dicko explained that Malians express their desire for change as previous presidents from democratic regimes have not been particularly outstanding, and corruption has reached alarming levels.
Nevertheless, the reform faces strong opposition from various groups, including former rebels, imams, and political adversaries.
Religious organizations with considerable influence oppose the perpetuation of secularism as enshrined in the current constitution. In the northern region, former rebels who, unlike the jihadists, signed a significant peace agreement with the government also reject the reform.
Makan Mary, a member of the Yelema party, asserted, “Mali needs a system built on institutions rather than a system centered around an individual.”
An anonymous researcher, echoing the sentiments of many others, argued that the previous constitution of 1992 was sufficient, claiming, “The crisis cannot be attributed to the 1992 constitution, as it was never truly implemented.”
Low voter turnout is widely anticipated, with political scientist Sogodogo stating, “Malian citizens have generally displayed low participation in elections. Since 1992, turnout has rarely exceeded 30 percent.”