This is a guest post by Grant Godfrey, Senior Program Manager, National Democratic Institute (NDI)
Unsuccessful Malian presidential contender Soumaïla Cissé’s claims of fraud have gained little traction, and President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s re-election in the August 12 runoff has been confirmed by the Constitutional Court. Yet hopes that the presidential election would reinvigorate the Algiers peace process may remain unfulfilled; a declining level of citizen engagement leaves the country’s institutions and leaders arguably weaker than in 2013.
Participation fell 6.28 points this year from the record voter turnout of 48.98% in the first round poll of 2013. Runoff participation plummeted over 11 points to 34.42%, the lowest rate in a presidential race since 2002. Despite rapid growth in the voting population—17 percent more registered voters, over 1.1 million more individuals—372,283 fewer Malians bothered to cast a runoff vote in 2018. Explanations for this could include an overall weakening of support for the candidates, dissatisfaction with facing the same choice as in the 2013 runoff, and/or a skepticism as to whether the election would bring any real change to voters’ lives.
The election returns tell a similar story. With 67.12 %, Keïta won more than two votes for every one for Cissé in the runoff. This is a large and convincing margin, but it may mask citizens’ deeper concerns for their country. The 34-point victory is still the second-narrowest in a presidential runoff in Mali—only Cissé’s loss to Amadou Toumani Touré in 2002 was closer. Cissé improved upon his 2013 performance by over 10 percentage points, winning nearly 200,000 more votes. He has clearly gained ground with the public. Keïta, on the other hand, won a second term despite inspiring fewer actual votes than he did five years ago. Runoff votes for Keïta dropped by 562,767. Put another way, for every vote he won in August 2013, almost one-quarter did not support him again this year. This does not place the president in an ideal position to push through controversial measures such as the reforms called for by the Algiers Accord. Keïta accepted the importance of working with his opponents, soliciting their support in his victory speech. Cissé, however, has continued to contest the final results.
A declining level of voter participation could also reflect a lack of confidence in the electoral process and institutions. For a number of election cycles, both domestic and international observers have recommended reforms that would inspire greater voter confidence in the process, and which have not been pursued. Some recurring examples include better defining roles and procedures for registering voters and delivering voter cards; considering the creation of a permanent and independent election management body; more transparency in results management, both at the polling station and at the Constitutional Court; and publicizing the CENI’s findings. Many of the challenges that gave rise to these past recommendations recurred this year.
One positive development in civic engagement in these past elections was the role played by Malian election monitoring groups. These deployed thousands of observers, who monitored all phases of the process. While noting many reassuring points, these groups also illuminated some problems that could undermine public confidence in elections. The Malian observer group Coalition for Citizen Observation of Elections in Mali (COCEM) noted that residents of the central region (where Cissé enjoys significant support) had a more difficult time obtaining their voter cards, generally for reasons attributed to insecurity. COCEM also observed unlawful distribution of “batches” of voter cards in five out of 15 regions (the law allows a maximum of two proxy card withdrawals per person). On election day, COCEM and others documented areas where voting was cancelled, despite an improved security presence.
COCEM also conducted an analysis of the polling-station-by-polling-station results for each round. COCEM found that in 393 polling stations (out of 22,675) all the votes went to a single candidate. Among these polling stations, 297 had more than 50 voters, and 112 also had 100 percent turnout. It may not be surprising that in some Malian communities, everyone votes for one candidate. The 100 percent turnout is arguably more surprising, particularly in an election with low turnout. In the 297 polling stations with unanimous voting and more than 50 voters, the average turnout was 86 percent; 254 of these polling stations were in areas prone to insecurity—Timbuktu, Gao and Mopti; and 127 alone were in the Timbuktu region, from which a number of Cissé’s complaints to the Constitutional Court emanated. It is important to state that these facts do not prove Soumaïla Cissé’s claim of massive ballot-box stuffing—in 44 polling stations with more than 50 voters, Cissé received all the votes. Had such fraud taken place, however, these are the types of results (high turnout, mostly for one candidate) it would produce.
The number of votes at issue would not have affected the outcome, but the complaint filed by the opposition provided the Constitutional Court an opportunity to build confidence in the post-election process. Cissé requested the court produce and examine, for example, the voter sign-in sheet (which could be probative if box-stuffing indeed occurred) for a number of locations alleged to suffer security or other problems, some of which COCEM’s analysis shows voted unanimously. Instead of considering the question of when a combination of insecurity and skewed results warrants closer scrutiny, the court required Cissé to produce a copy of the tally sheet showing that a complaint was made at the polling station by a party representative; however, in 2013 the EU observation mission noted that party agents only received copies of the final count, not of their complaints. If that is still the practice, it would make proof of misdeeds nearly impossible, according to the court’s current jurisprudence. Where Cissé also offered witness testimony, it was not considered sufficient. The court appears to consider the CENI’s reports dispositive; indeed, it is not clear that the court would consider any evidence favorably absent corroboration by the CENI observer. However, without divulging the CENI’s and court delegates’ observations, it is difficult for the public to assess the sincerity of the court’s judgment.
The court’s approach to its decision will thus likely fuel more opposition criticism of the post-election process. Critics could also question the court’s position on transparency measures that were taken in 2018. The court begins its opinion with an aside in which it asserts that requests by national and international observers for access to the center where results are compiled, and for on-line publication of results by polling station, lack a legal basis. The court reasons that since the law does not affirmatively require these measures, they should not have been taken, and compromise Malian sovereignty. The court ignored Article 11 of the constitution, which states that “Anything not prohibited by law shall not be prevented….” The court’s language was unnecessary to the resolution of the case, the purpose of including it is unclear, and the statements should give Malian democracy advocates cause for concern. The net effect of this resistance to open election data practices could well be to reinforce citizen skepticism and further alienating voters.
 The Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) “supervises” election operations organized by the Ministry of Territorial Administration. CENI is run by a board representing the majority, opposition and civil society. It sends observers to every polling station and provides a report to the President. Its report is supposed to be published in the Official Journal (Electoral Law, Arts 3, 4, 17).
 Twenty-one voting stations had 100 percent turnout and voted unanimously in both rounds.
 The number of votes cast in unanimous polling stations nationwide totaled 57,449, while Keïta’s victory margin was over 900,000.