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Mali gears up for parliamentary polls

22 November 2013, 17:51

Bamako - Ravaged by war, hamstrung by political chaos and mired in poverty, Mali sets out on the road to recovery on Sunday with the first parliamentary polls since it was upended by a military coup.

The election will complete the troubled west African nation's return to democracy, finalising a process which started with the election of its first post-conflict president amid joyful scenes in the capital Bamako three months ago.

But the vote takes place amid an upsurge in violence by al-Qaeda-linked rebels who stalk the vast northern desert, an ever-present danger to French and African troops who are tasked with providing security for the election alongside the Malian army.

Militants shelled the northern city of Gao on Thursday, and although their rockets fell harmlessly short of the main urban centre, the attack underlined the continuing security threat.

Islamists ousted by French and African troops in January from the northern towns they had occupied last year resumed their deadly insurgency on 28 September, after a lull of several months.

Since then, a dozen civilians as well as Malian and Chadian soldiers in the United Nations' MINUSMA peacekeeping mission have been killed in and around Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.

In a grisly reminder for the West of the ongoing security crisis, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb on 2 November kidnapped and shot dead two French radio journalists who had come to Kidal, 1 500km northeast of Bamako.

Uncertainty remains over security ahead of the vote in the largely lawless region, the cradle of a Tuareg rebellion and the stronghold of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), despite the presence of peacekeepers and French and Malian troops.

Uninspiring campaign

Some 6.5 million Malians are eligible to elect a new national assembly on Sunday, with more than 1 000 candidates running for 147 seats.

Four seats are up for grabs in the Kidal region, a vast but sparsely populated expanse of desert with an electorate of around 30 000.

Yet no candidate has run a campaign of any note in the area, and the leaders of the major political parties have in particular been conspicuous by their absence.

The three-week campaign, which ends on Friday, has not caught fire in Mali, and pundits are predicting a lower turnout than the 50% achieved in the presidential election won by former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.

The ruling Rally for Mali (RPM) has vowed to deliver "a comfortable majority" to smoothe the path for the reforms Keita plans to put in place to rebuild Mali's stagnant economy and soothe simmering ethnic tensions in the north.

But Bamako-based social scientist Mamadou Samake told AFP that it would be "difficult or impossible" for any one political party to manage an overall majority, predicting that the RPM would be required to go into coalition to form a government.

Such a deal would almost certainly require the acquiescence of the Alliance for Democracy in Mali (Adema), one of the country's most established parties, which was split during the presidential polls between Keita and his rival, Soumaila Cisse.

Cisse, who is vying to represent the Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) in his home region of Timbuktu, aims to become the leader of the parliamentary opposition.

He was among the fiercest opponents of former junta chief Amadou Sanogo, who has recently been summoned before a judge to answer accusations that his men committed atrocities after overthrowing the democratically elected government in March last year.

Sanogo, controversially promoted to general in August by the outgoing transitional government, has not responded to the summons, angering a coalition of anti-coup politicians that includes Cisse.

Sunday's election will be supervised by hundreds of Malian and international observers, including a European Union mission.

A second round will take place on 15 December if no party is able to form a government following Sunday's vote.



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