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Mali

Mali moves towards parliamentary elections

It’s an important step towards a fresh start: Malians go to the polls in late November to elect a new parliament. The election campaign has just begun in the crisis-hit West African country, and expectations are high.

"Many are convinced that the elections mean a return to calm and democracy," said Badié Hima, who works for the US organization the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Mali's capital Bamako.

On November 24, some three months after the presidential elections, Malians will elect a new national assembly, with 1,141 candidates running for 147 seats.

Many voters hope that the new parliament will help their country out of the crisis that began just over a year and a half ago. On March 21, 2012, the military launched a coup against the then President Amani Toumani Touré. The result was a war that was ended only by foreign military intervention.

Annette Lohmann from the German Friedrich Ebert foundation (FES) in Mali agrees that the parliamentary elections could help to establish the conditions for a fresh start. But she stresses that the election is just the first of many steps.

"What about the legal system?" she asks. "An independent judiciary would be the next key player in a true democratization of the country. There's still a lot of work to be done there, too." The parliament, said Lohmann, is of course "a core political player that has to contribute a lot more to the true separation of powers in the future."

This photo taken on August 9, 2013, in Bamako, shows Mali's presidential candidate Ibrahim Boubacar Keita speaking during an interview. (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/ AFP/Getty Images)

Mali's new president Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is leading negotiations over a Tuareg state

Weak parliament under former president

In the past, the parliament in Mali was generally very weak. Instead of using their position to keep the government in check or draft their own bills, members of parliament tended uncritically to adopt government legislation. Consensus politics under former President Amani Toumani Touré – dubbed ATT – effectively prevented a true multi-party political system, because the opposition would form alliances with the government.

That tendency is still there, says Annette Lohmann - to the detriment of political content. "At the moment, all parties and all candidates are in the process of forming alliances and negotiating strategic procedures," she says. "Political statements, content and programs have nothing much to do with it."

One example: Mali's largest party, the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Adema), and the new president's party, Assembly for Mali (RPM), have joined forces at the local level. During the presidential election campaign, Adema focused on social equality while RPM, the party of the new President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita - known as IBK - focused on resolving the conflict in the north of the country.

Hope for reconciliation and peace

A soldier from the Tuareg rebel group MNLA holds an AK-47 in the northeastern town of Kidal February 4, 2013. REUTERS/Cheick Diouara

Radical Tuareg groups in northern Mali are still demanding autonomy

Many such alliances have only one goal: to win as many votes as possible in the elections in late November. Camara Bakary, a political scientist at Bamako's USJPB University, says that the search for allies often permits politicians to overcome seemingly unbridgeable divisions, and to form alliances he says he finds quite incredible.

According to Bakary, many opportunists are banking on the new president's popularity in order to win votes for themselves. This strategy, he warns, does not bode well. If the majority of members of parliament support the course of new president IBK, the opposition will be as weak as under his predecessor ATT - and if this is case, little is likely to be achieved. "But if the opposition is strong, or at least relatively strong," he says, "this could contribute to an inner-Malian reconciliation process, to peace, and possibly even to development."

Nadié Hima from NDI, the Bamako-based National Democratic Institute, points out that Malians don't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. "I'm convinced that Malians have learnt their lesson in the political-institutional crisis," says Hima. "It's true that the electoral lists contain some alliances. But we'll never return to the consensual parliament we had in the past."

Ongoing dispute over a Tuareg state

Soumaïla Cissé, for example, who was a losing candidate in the presidential elections, has already signaled that he will be a critical force in opposition. For no matter how the parliamentary elections turn out, the dispute over an independent Tuareg state remains acute, and demands a solution. Talks are underway but have so far made little progress.

Soumaila Cissé (Photo: Katrin Gänsler)

Defeated presidential candidate Soumaila Cissé intends to be a vocal opposition leader in parliament

"We should not expect a breakthrough in negotiations before the parliamentary elections," says Annette Lohmann of the FES. "Those involved, especially the government, are probably waiting until the parliamentary election is over so as not to jeopardize the vote. The negotiations with several radical Tuareg groups in the North are rather difficult and have the potential to spark conflict across the country, depending on how the final result turns out."

It's still unclear how much of a role parliament can actually play in resolving the conflict. After his election victory, President Keita proclaimed that only he and the government had the right to negotiate with the North. He created a new ministry for the purpose: the Ministry for National Reconciliation and Development of the North.

However, Mali analyst Annette Lohmann says that the parliament need not stand idly by. It could also help to bolster political support for the results of the talks.

And political scientist Camara Bakary raises another significant aspect: the participation of deputies from all over Mali. "A National Assembly consists of representatives from all the country's regions, and that of course includes the North," he says.

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