EU foreign policy chief praises ‘calm’ presidential vote in Mali

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The EU’s foreign policy chief hailed the “calm” of Mali’s weekend presidential election as vote-counting continued on Monday (29 July) in a contest that international supporters hope will help patch the African nation's deep divisions.

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s top foreign policy official, said after polls closed on Sunday that the vote was marked by “calm and serenity”. “Despite the difficult conditions, the Malian administration showed its determination to guarantee the transparency and the credibility of the elections,” she said in a statement.

Nearly 7 million people were eligible to vote and observers reported high turnout on Sunday in a contest that the EU, the top donor to Mali, saw as essential for stability and the continuation of international support.  

The leading candidates in the election included two former prime ministers, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Modibo Sidibe; Soumaila Cisse, an ex-finance minister; and Dramane Dembele, who was backed by Mali's biggest party, ADEMA.

A run-off is scheduled to be held on 11 August if no candidate emerges with more than 50% of the vote.

The election was monitored by hundreds of international observers, including an EU delegation headed by Belgian MEP Louis Michel, a former EU development commissioner.

Although the interim government was under pressure to hold an inclusive campaign, many of the country’s conflict zones in the north were off-limits to the 27 presidential candidates and ballot workers.

High expectations from EU

Expectations for the election were high. Mali’s international partners agreed on 15 May to provide €3.25 billion to fund a sweeping development plan for Mali, but European donors made clear that the interim government must live up to its promises for free elections and democratic and social reforms in exchange for the international lifeline.

The Brussels donor conference came four months after an EU-backed French force halted an advance by militants in the country’s north. The EU hosted the donor conference to help finance the Malian government’s plan to improve health, education, the economy and food security.

It also pledged to rebuild its impoverished northern region where skirmishes between foreign-backed government troops and militants continue.

The European Commission and the EU member states pledged €1.35 billion for Mali through 2014, one-third of the international commitment.

European leaders made clear at the Brussels meeting that the aid comes as part of broader efforts to stabilise a West African region that has endured repeated food crises, political instability and armed conflicts.

EU representatives have said aid must be tied to the Malian authorities' adherence to the political stabilisation roadmap they presented to donors, including Sunday’s elections.

Governance concerns

The support of the EU and international organisations has been crucial for Mali, coming a year after a brief military coup and flare-up of sectoral violence led the EU and other donors to freeze aid and ultimately back the French military operation.

But the nation of 16 million faces high hurdles, including continued fighting, pressure from Islamist groups and drug traders, and refugee and food crises.

Mali must also tackle its reputation for corruption and mismanagement of aid. The Business Anti-Corruption portal, an EU-funded project, reports that bribery and graft are widespread. In 2010, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria halted funding to Mali amid allegations of fraud and mismanagement.

The Global Fund has since resumed aid and in November announced €110 million in new funding.

The Malian government address reports of extrajudicial executions, torture and reprisals carried out by government forces.

Mali has been torn for decades by divisions between its northern Islamic and Arab communities and the African south. Attacks by northern insurgents, backed by regional Islamic groups, surged in early 2012, leading the military to temporarily seize control of the government.

United Nations rights officials and advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have accused insurgents and Islamic militants of pillaging and rape, while government forces have been linked to reprisals and torture.

Amnesty International has accused government forces in the north of carrying out executions and Islamic rebels of recruiting child soldiers.

Mali, a nation of 16 million, erupted in conflict last year when army officers deposed the civilian government while Tuareg fighters who had been sheltering in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya returned home to renew their long-time rebellion. Civilian rule was restored, paving the way for the restoration of EU and international aid this year.

The French intervention has stabilised the south and the influx of aid has allowed relief organisations to begin restoring war-damaged clinics in populated northern areas despite continuing threats of rebel attacks.

The UN’s humanitarian agency reported on 8 May that 475,000 people had fled northern regions due to conflict and food insecurity. The International Committee for Red Cross says civilians continue to stay away.

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