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Compulsory, but meaningful event
– by Phillip Kusch
The preparation and administration of the local elections staged in Mali at the end of April 2009 enjoyed broad-based donor support. Observers spoke of “free and fair elections with minor flaws”. Average turnout was 45 %. Less than 20 % of incumbent office-holders were re-elected. The elections thus served an important function in political and societal terms.
Even so, the electoral event merits closer inspection. It displayed a number of weaknesses. These included deficiencies in Mali’s electoral law, the still-embryonic sense of democratic citizenship and a decentralisation process that has yet to be consolidated.
In Bamako, the capital city, voter turnout was lower than 23 %. On the day of the elections, activists of political parties were seen shuttling people to polling stations in rusty old Mercedes busses. Each person was given a voting card. Formal ID would normally be required, but the identity of anyone unable to present the proper papers was considered as proven if two persons made statements accordingly. In the evening, with many voting cards still unused, party activists became increasingly frantic, waving CFA 1,000 and later even CFA 2,000 notes (the equivalent of € 1.50 and € 3 respectively). They were trying to mobilise more voters and boost their candidates' chances of winning. The willingness to pay – and accept – money for votes indicates that a lot still needs to be done in terms of people's understanding of the citizen’s role in a democracy.
Abstention and, to some extent, even the commercialisation of votes, however, make sense in view of the many urban people who do not conceal their disappointment in municipal democracy. In the two previous electoral terms, many urban office-holders used their power to sell public real estate for their own benefit.
In April, institutional weaknesses became evident in Mali’s governance in general and the electoral system in particular. The government relies on party activists and volunteers to organise elections, and it even pays them an allowance. Unfortunately, the system of voting cards, which is tied to electoral registers and places of residence, gives parties lots of room for manipulation.
In particular, the rule that voting cards are issued by politically assigned commissions implies that only voters who seem politically “acceptable” (in the sense of voting for the “right” party) get these documents. For years, national and international observers have criticised the delegation of votes and the identification of voters by third-party testimony. However, Mali’s political parties have so far prevented changes in the electoral law, pointing out flaws in the country’s personal law.
Despite such problems, the recent local elections were certainly successful. From a technical and administrative viewpoint, they were very well organised. The voting process was transparent, and so was the counting of votes. There were no attempts at intimidation. Representatives of the Independent National Election Commission were present at nearly every polling station. The introduction of a single ballot paper, on which a cross is placed against the emblem of the favoured political party in waterproof ink, did not prevent attempts to buy votes, but it did hold back parties from checking unused ballots to establish whether people actually did vote as they had promised.
Many voters, especially young people, said they saw through the vote-buying system. They took the CFA 1,000 or 2,000 offered by one party and voted for another. The 2009 local government elections also saw the ratio of successful female candidates nearly double from five percent to just under 10 %. That is a good sign in a predominantly Muslim country where women generally have no say.
In rural areas, there was widespread evidence of voters rewarding transparent administrations. The turnout figures were as much as 10 % above average in places where annual budget reports on revenues, expenditures and local tax collection had been discussed in public. Many re-elected mayors stated that they owed their new mandate to the implementation of transparency policies.
Stages of decentralisation
The all too familiar vicious circle of apparently self-evident corruption and the general lack of civic spirit was broken in many places. That should also have a positive impact on public attitude towards paying local taxes, charges and levies. To introduce local budget reporting in public is one of the principles promoted by German ODA agencies in Mali. The concept was drafted in cooperation with Malian partners even before the 2004 elections, but it has now been comprehensively embraced. Under the national decentralisation programme, the Ministry for Territorial Administration has made public budget reporting mandatory for all municipal governments this year.
The challenge now is to build upon the positive experiences of promoting local democracy. If Mali is serious about local self-administration, the decentralisation process must not be allowed to lose momentum. Important tasks are assigned to local authorities at present – in education and health for instance – but opportunities to generate independent revenue are scant. Nor are enough funds transferred from the state to the municipalities to run their daily tasks. The programme the central government initiated for fiscal decentralisation must continue, otherwise municipal authorities will be stuck in permanent financial straits.
On the whole, fruitful and cooperative dialogue between the national government and the leaders of regional and local administrations is still far from routine. Representatives of the central government, in particular, have so far shown little interest in boosting local self-administration.
Nonetheless, a prime ministerial decree issued in 2008 gives reason for hope. It requires the swift transfer of responsibilities and finance by all sectoral ministries to local governments. Implementation began quite promisingly in the second half of last year. Moreover, a training centre for local government officials was established. Its initial intake included 700 new officials, who were prepared for their duties. The comprehensive basic training this centre provides to newly elected mayors – some of whom have no administrative experience whatsoever – helps to raise awareness of governance issues at the local level.
A great deal more needs to be done to implant a clear understanding of democracy in Malian society. The social context is difficult, because reforms affect the influence of religious and traditional authorities. On the other hand, Western-dominated donor institutions often struggle to understand the local culture.
What will matter in the end is the degree to which the “accountability gap” between the voters and the candidates they elected on polling day will narrow down. It is rare in Mali for a local council meeting to be held in public, even though the decentralisation programme demands that this be done. For one, many councils prefer not to work in the public eye; in addition, the largely uninformed people are not in a position to actively insist on demands for transparency.
One thing, however, is certain: as long as there is a lack of basic social services and fully operational local government, it will be hard to persuade Malians of the need to pay taxes and vote. Many people in Mali have yet to personally experience the advantages of decentralisation. In this sense, the municipal elections of 2009 were a reminder not to let the hard-won results of democratisation and decentralisation wither and die, but rather to step up efforts and reap their fruits in the future.