In 2008 Mali initiated a three year reform process aimed at assessing and improving the functioning of its multi-party system.
Early February, President Touré mandated a commission lead by former minister Daba Diawarra to organise widespread consultations and formulate recommendations in this respect. On the 13th of October 2008, the commission presented not less than 233 recommendations in its report.
Amongst the proposals are the need to set off a constitutional reform process, the advice to come-up with a single (autonomous) institution mandated to organise and supervise the entire electoral process, to reduce obstacles for the functioning of independent media (certainly television), to strengthen the legislative branch of government by setting-up a senate, to reduce floor crossing of Members of Parliament and to introduce an electoral system based on proportional representation.
Although often mentioned as a working example of democracy on the African continent, Mali’s extremely low turnout figures during elections as well as the widely recognised problems related to electoral fraud are amongst the features that make the current reform process an absolute necessity. The political will demonstrated so far has certainly created the foundations of a comprehensive review of Malian democracy in the years to come. A follow-up commission was appointed in December with the objective to prepare a constitutional reform process and to draft legislation based on the recommendations made.
The strategic involvement of NIMD’s local partner in this area was recognised by President Touré when he appointed a board member of the Centre de Dialogue Inter-Partis et la Democratie (CMDID) as one of the five commissioners. This commission will prepare legislation throughout 2009 that will be implemented in 2010.
But ameliorating the legal framework of Malian democracy in itself won’t sufficiently address all major democratic challenges the country faces. One of these challenges concerns the wide ‘accountability gap’ between political actors and Malian citizens. A recent survey amongst citizens indicated that voters determine their electoral choice based on regional considerations as well as their (dis)approval of government policies. But in practice, opportunities for citizens to express their concerns and hold their representatives accountable remain minimal. Nevertheless, a number of positive trends can be identified. Firstly, following five years of ‘consensus democracy’, a vocal parliamentarian opposition surfaced after the 2007 elections.
On issues of national interest (the Northern rebellion, corruption, the 2009 national budget, the crisis within the education sector), the three opposition parties actively expressed their policy positions. This at least offers citizens access to different policy alternatives and enhances the checks-and-balances within the party system.
Secondly, political parties are reviewing their manifestos, are translating them into local languages and frequently organise consultative meetings with their local branches to discuss issues of regional and national importance.
A third important step can be taken in this area if the upcoming legislative reform process is able to liberalize media legislation. Political debate and the forming of public opinion in Mali is, however, also quite sensitive an issue. Proposed legislation by the government (and heavily supported by Western donors) in the area of family and women’s rights as well as the abolition of the death penalty has been fiercely criticised by religious institutions.
Parliamentarians who are supposed to actively debate these issues have often chosen to remain silent and postpone the decision making process as they can not to afford to either lose support from western donors nor from their religious constituencies. Nevertheless, accountability mechanisms can say to have improved in 2008 in comparison to the 2002-2007 electoral cycle which was dominated by an overall parliamentarian consensus.
Another issue that continuously affects Malian democracy concerns the violent attacks on army bases and convoys by a group of Tuareg rebels in the Northern regions. Officially they claim to protest against the socio-economic deprivation of these regions and to call attention to their call for increased regional autonomy.
Many observers have, however, linked the attacks to the need to defend smuggling routes in the dessert. The government initially continued to pursue dialogue with the rebels and increased socio-economic investments in the Northern regions (based on a 2006 compromise and 2007 specific donor conference). A military response was however given to yet another rebel attack in May. The Northern rebellion as well as President Touré’s continuous efforts to resolve the conflict through dialogue has dominated the political agenda throughout the year although it hasn’t had a major destabilising effect on Mali’s overall democratic consolidation process.
The food crisis (with significantly rising prices) did have an important impact on the daily lives of many. Government response (freezing energy prices, providing food subsidies and putting together an ambitious programme to increase domestic rice production) together with a good rainy season did make a positive contribution to somewhat reduce citizens’ hardship. Government also organised debates over proposed and required structural changes in the agriculture sector which included representatives from the donor community. The crisis certainly demonstrated that Malian democracy is characterised by a government responsive to citizens needs.
Preparations for the 2009 local elections dominated the last quarter of the year. Voters could register until November but doubts on the accuracy of the electoral registrar were, once again, expressed by the opposition. A broad civil registration process that should also improve confidence in the electoral process was initiated in 2008. Before the 2012 elections, an accurate system of citizens’ and voters’ registration as well as improved voters cards (including photographs) should be in place. The electoral commission, mandated to monitor the upcoming elections, was installed and started its preparatory works. The previous local elections in 2004 demonstrated the highest turn out figures since the transition to multi-party democracy. The upcoming year will reveal whether this score can be further augmented.