This is a guest post by Lauren Kunis, Program Manager at the National Democratic Institute (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Malians went to the polls on November 24 to elect 147 members of the National Assembly (AN) – a final step in the country’s return to democracy following a March 2012 coup d’etat that catapulted the country into a downward spiral of intertwined political and security crises. In Mali’s two-round electoral system, a party list or independent candidate list must win an absolute majority of votes in the first round in order to be awarded the district’s parliamentary seats. Seats are attributed to districts based on population, with districts this year having between one and seven seats up for grabs. Last week’s first round of voting was largely inconclusive, and 44 of 55 electoral districts will hold a runoff election on December 15. Only 22 out of the 147 seats were won outright in the first round.
Voting proceeded in a largely peaceful fashion, but the big story was the dismal turnout across the country. Domestic and international observers all remarked on the limited presence of voters in the polls, and the official results released on November 27 cited a 38.5 percent participation rate. Malians’ lack of interest in the election of their new MPs could perhaps most plausibly reflect the limited importance that citizens attach to the work of the legislature and the low regard in which they hold it. In a November 2012 survey conducted by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, 46.5 percent of Malians stated that they had “no confidence” in the AN, with an additional 10 percent responding that they had “no opinion.”
Mali’s weak legislature was one of several festering weaknesses in the country’s first two decades of democracy. The AN failed to reflect the vast array of citizen priorities and provide an effective check on executive branch power. It rarely introduced its own legislation, opting instead to summarily pass bills submitted by the executive – very often unanimously. A hallmark of the last five years was a “consensus model” of government in which parties were gradually co-opted by former president Amadou Toumani Touré’s political movement. By 2012, of the 13 parties represented in the legislature, only one party with nominal representation (4 of 147 deputies) belonged to the political opposition. This discouraged partisan differentiation and a true, issue-based debate that would pique citizens’ interest, encourage political engagement, and broaden political participation beyond a narrow class of elites.
This summer, Malians elected Ibrahima Boubacar Keita (IBK) of the Rally for Mali (RPM) party to the presidency. Narrowly missing a first-round victory, IBK was elected with a resounding 77 percent of the vote in an August runoff election. Having distanced himself from the prevailing parliamentary coalition in the months following the coup, it was in IBK’s best political interest to organize legislative polls as quickly as possible in order to capitalize upon this surge of support to secure the “comfortable legislative majority” he desired. Meanwhile, presidential runner-up Soumalia Cissé of the Union for Republic and Democracy (URD) party vowed to turn his attention toward creating a unified, vocal, and empowered parliamentary opposition.
An analysis of the party lists presented in Mali’s legislative polls reveals that Cissé may fall short in delivering on this promise. There are not consistent party alliances across the country that would foreshadow a solid opposition in the new legislature. Rather than forming national electoral coalitions, party leaders at the local level scrambled to form alliances in an ad-hoc fashion that would allow them the best chances for victory at the polls. This is starkly illustrated by instances in which IBK’s ruling RPM party presented joint lists with Cissé’s opposition URD. In other districts, the URD formed alliances with the fringe SADI party, a vocal supporter of the March 2012 coup that overthrew the former regime of which the URD had been a solid supporter.
Mali’s next legislature needs to re-earn the trust of the Malian people by demonstrating that it is an autonomous body for debate – not simply a rubber-stamping entity for the president. A strong parliamentary opposition would be a big part of this. Despite the lack of consistency in the opposition parties’ electoral alliances, can Cissé bring a new model of parliamentary strength to Mali? Or will legislators fall prey to old habits and enter into a second era of consensus politics – to the detriment of the legislature and Malian citizens alike?