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Mali holds presidential elections: Polls to the people, power to the incumbents

Mali holds presidential elections: polls to the people, power to the incumbents
Voting in the first round of the 2013 presidential elections at the Ecole de la République in Bamako, 28 July 2013. Photo: Flickr/MINUSMA/Marco Dormino.

On 29 July 2018, eight million registered Malian voters will be asked to elect their next president. The elections will mark the end of the first presidential term after the military coup in 2012 and will be the sixth presidential election since the democratic transition in 1991. This blog outlines the upcoming elections and provides an overview to SIPRI’s post-election survey to better understand the expectations of Mali’s population.


A run off among the old guard

The list of electoral candidates exhibits Mali’s enduring political class—one that is unlikely to undergo significant generational change. Among the 24 official candidates is the incumbent President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta (IBK), aged 71, and 10 candidates that ran for presidency in the last elections in 2013. Some shifts have been introduced including important departures from IBK’s government with five former ministers of IBK’s government now running as independent candidates.

Other notable candidates include:

  • Soumaïla Cissé, aged 69, emerged from the same political movement as IBK in the 1990s and became his principal opponent in 2013 and now again in 2018 as leader of the opposition;
  • Dramane Dembele came third in the 2013 elections followed by former Premier Modibo Sidibé (2007–2011);
  • Cheick Modibo Diarra was acting Prime Minister in the transition government after the 2012 military coup and received support of IBK’s former Prime Minister, Moussa Mara, who withdrew his candidacy;
  • Djénéba Ndiaye, is the only female candidate. She has no former political background and a simple slogan “Votez pour une femme. Les hommes ont échoué/Vote for a woman. Because the men have failed”.


Two younger outsiders have emerged from the opposition party:

  • Moussa Sinko Coulibaly, aged 46, retired general and former transition Minister;
  • Mamadou Igor Diarra, aged 51, IBK’s former Minister of Finance.


Coulibaly and Diarra are less established and have limited financial and administrative support. Correspondingly, their campaigns are based on the idea that the Malian political class should be renewed and their greater objective is to position themselves for the 2023 presidential elections.


The advantage of the incumbent may bridge the performance gap

The elections come at a critical time with reports of abuses by state security forces. Reported abuses have included the extrajudicial killings of civilians from a Malian military unit of the G5 Sahel joint force (FC-G5S), escalating violence in the centre and the north of the country, increasing attacks against national and international security forces, and the recent dismissal of the Malian commander of the FC-G5S.

Yet, Afrik-Poll, an African political polling association, predict that IBK will win another five-year term by 41.8 per cent in the first round. This projection is based on a national sample of 1296 people (excluding the three northern regions of Taoudéni, Ménaka and Kidal). IBK has not delivered on many key issues. For instance, his government has performed poorly when enforcing the Algiers Peace Accords (2015). Moreover, under IBK, Mali’s economic growth has halted and food insecurity has increased due to poor agricultural harvests, persistent insecurity and questionable policies. For example, IBK’s government has prohibited the use of motorbikes in certain areas in the north and center of Mali. The policy is intended to counter jihadist attacks since motorbikes are often used in such attacks. However, for the civilian population motorbikes are an indispensable means of transport.

Despite both domestic and international sides feeling disenfranchised, IBK possesses a comparative advantage since he is running as the incumbent president. As the incumbent he enjoys greater access to state resources and the loyalty of civil servants. Moreover, there is no credible and unified alternative that seems in a position to pose a serious challenge to him.


Election legitimacy challenged by suspected fraud and on-going violence

According to the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralisation, most electoral identity cards have been distributed to local voting centers. However, few voters have collected their electoral identity cards and there are particularly low collection rates in Bamako (close to 40 per cent) and among the Malian diaspora (only 20 per cent have collected cards). A more alarming issue with respect to the legitimacy of the election is the decision to allow the use of the 2013 NINA (numéro d’identification nationale) electoral identity cards in case the new identity cards are not distributed due to force majeure. In particular, low printing quality of the 2013 NINA cards makes it difficult to identify voters. Moreover, there is a requirement that NINA cards must be used in the electoral district they were distributed to which restricts displaced people from participating. Furthermore, there are 900 000 missing NINA cards which—as the opposition party has argued—may well be used in favour of the incumbent government.

Violence also challenges the legitimacy of the elections. Opposition supporters in Bamako have faced brutal hostilities from the police force. Militia groups in the center of the country have announced they will stop the elections from being held and the leader of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM and affiliated groups) have pledged to not participate in the elections in order to demonstrate their disapproval of the laic Malian republic. These factors degrade the prospects to organise fair elections in the north and south of the country and thus undermine the legitimacy of the result.



In order to understand the expectations of Mali’s general population towards Malian elites in a post-conflict context and the local dynamics of the 2018 elections, SIPRI is conducting a post-election survey. The survey is based on Mali’s ten regions and aims to understand the Malian populations’ perception of the state, Malian elites, their legitimacy and the prospects for democratic consolidation.

There is a general belief in Mali that the state is responsible to solve the security situation. Despite this, Malian elections have historically had a low voter turnout. According to government statistics only 38.3 per cent of Malians voted in 2002, 36.2 per cent in 2007 and 48 per cent in 2013 in the first round of presidential elections. Examining these dynamics more closely is of vital importance in assessing the perceived role of state-building in general, and more specifically the provision of security by the state. Ahead of the election, an exploratory, one-page pilot survey was handed out to the Monitoring Groups for Peace and Security (MGPS), composed of 109 civil society actors representing women, youth and traditional authorities from the ten regions and the District of Bamako.[1]


MGPS respondents perceived the elections as important, yet not free from constraint

The pilot study revealed that the surveyed population view the 2018 election as an opportunity to turn the tide in a relentless conflict environment. 83 per cent of respondents reported that they perceive the choice of the next president as essential for peace and security in the country. This perception resonated highly among northern, rural and youth respondents. The results indicated top concerns among the sample group are; enforcing the Algiers Peace Accords (2015), finding solutions for managing local conflicts and improving access to basic services such as water and education.

Despite general agreement of the importance of the 2018 election, the 109 MGPS respondents also expressed their perceived frustrations with the upcoming elections. For example, respondents thought that candidates will overlook important issues for their community, 59 per cent thought their vote will matter for the final result, 75 per cent were more interested in local and regional elections than national ones, and 65 per cent stated that the elections will not be free, transparent and credible, with younger voters, voters from urban areas and voters from the center and the north being more concerned. A majority (64 per cent) fear election-related violence, with higher rates among respondents from the center of the country than the north. This geographic difference may partly be explained by the government and the Coordination des Mouvements de l'Azawad’s (CMA) common interest in upholding stability for the elections in the north, as evidenced by the Prime Minister visiting Kidal without incidence and in accordance with the CMA. Conversely, no such agreement has been established with the jihadist and armed groups operating in the center of Mali, and therefore the security situation is fraught.

Respondents also answered questions on key influencers in Malian society such as traditional authorities and international stakeholders. Respondents were asked how both the relationship between the candidate, the influencers and the voter may affect their vote. A strong majority of respondents said they were not influenced in selecting a candidate by other members of their household (86 per cent) or traditional authorities (85 per cent).


Divergent perceptions across the disaggregated sample

Looking at the disaggregated sample, attitudes towards the electoral processes and political preferences tended to contain greater variation depending on the geographic region rather than the locality (urban or rural), gender and age. When asked if their interest in politics had increased over the last six years, respondents from the centre zone (58 per cent) and in rural environments (60 per cent) said it had increased. Alternatively, 78 per cent of urban respondents said it had decreased over the course of the last six years with a larger share expecting violence around the elections than their urban counterparts. Urban respondents also felt that local issues will not be included in the national political debate. Moreover, they perceived that the politics surrounding the presidential elections were more negative than their rural counterparts.

Female respondents tended to be more optimistic than men. Female respondents were more prone to believe that the presidential candidate has an important potential to deliver peace, assess the political debate and bring forward new and interesting ideas to the security-humanitarian debate. Interestingly, results regarding the lack of support for female participation in the political space, revealed no significant gender divides.

Disaggregating respondents’ responses into regional zones, respondents from the south were the least concerned with regional politics and electoral irregularities. Respondents in central Mali more frequently emphasized that a candidate’s international engagement is an important factor for their vote. This finding may be qualified by the fact that central Mali has a high need for security yet a lower presence of international actors.

Younger respondents had a more critical perception regarding international influence in the upcoming elections. In particular, they are most sceptical of the candidates. The SIPRI survey revealed a fifty-fifty split on avoiding candidates who are perceived to be too strongly aligned with international interests. Likewise, more than half of young respondents perceived that international support matters more to candidates than national support. Alternatively, respondents above the age of 35 predominantly did not perceive international support as a decisive issue. The trend that young voters are more sceptical represents a potential to challenge the status quo in future elections, although the tendency among youth to disengage from the political process may limit this momentum.

Based on the results from this pilot electoral survey, SIPRI will conduct a larger-scale study across Mali after Election Day. This study will assess the overall impacts of the political process, the election results and analyse the dynamics between local populations and Malian political elites.


SIPRI intern Sékou Traoré helped in preparing data in support of this paper.


[1] The study interviewed a group of respondents form a network of civil society actors from the Mali II Civil Society and Peacebuilding Project orchestrated by SIPRI and CONASCIPAL:

 72 men and 37 women, a total of 50 participants in the north zone (Tombouctou, Gao, Kidal, Ménaka, Taoudéni), 32 in the centre (Mopti and Ségou) and 26 in the south (Kayes, Koulikoro, Bamako, Sikasso). 68 indicated to be from rural areas and 28 from urban. The average age was 43. Youth is defined as respondents aged 35 or below.



Myriam Marending was a Research Assistant in the Sahel and West Africa Programme at SIPRI.
Dr Grégory Chauzal was a Senior Researcher and the Director of the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.
Zoë Gorman was a Research Assistant in the SIPRI Sahel West Africa Programme.