Malians yesterday headed to the polls for a long-delayed parliamentary election just hours after the country recorded its first coronavirus death and with the leading opposition figure kidnapped and believed to be in the hands of militants.
There were security fears about the vote even before the war-torn West African country recorded its first COVID-19 case on Wednesday.
About 200,000 people displaced by the near-daily violence in Mali’s center and north would not be able to vote, because “no mechanism has been established” for them to do so, a government official said.
There were also fears that the impoverished state of about 19 million people — where large swathes of territory lie outside state control — is particularly exposed to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Late on Saturday, just hours before polls were scheduled to open at 8am GMT yesterday, the country’s first coronavirus death was announced, with the number of infections rising to 18.
The poll would see new lawmakers elected to the 147-seat National Assembly for the first time since 2013, when Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s Rally for Mali party won a substantial majority. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place again in late 2018 following Keita’s re-election.
The poll has been postponed several times, largely due to security concerns.
After Sunday’s first round vote, a second round is scheduled for April 19.
Casting a shadow over the vote is the fate of veteran opposition leader Soumaila Cisse, who was on Wednesday kidnapped while campaigning in the center of the nation.
Cisse, 70, who has been runner-up in three presidential elections, and six members of his team were abducted in an attack in which his bodyguard was killed.
He was “likely” being held by militants loyal to Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, who leads a branch of the al-Qaeda-aligned Group to Support Islam and Muslims active in the Sahel, a security source and a local official said.
Cisse and his entourage were probably now “far from where they were abducted,” the security source said.
The government’s election spokesman, Amini Belko Maiga, has admitted that voting conditions are not ideal.
“It’s true that we cannot say that everything is perfect, but we’re doing the maximum,” he said, referring to the threat of coronavirus.
He added that hand-washing kits had been distributed in the countryside, while in the capital, Bamako, authorities would make masks and hand sanitizer available.
Cisse’s Union for the Republic and Democracy party on Saturday urged its supporters to turn out in even greater numbers.
“In these difficult times our country is going through, more than ever, the party’s activists are resolutely urged to redouble their efforts for a massive participation in the March 29, 2020, elections,” the party said.
However several other opposition parties called for the vote to be postponed due to coronavirus fears.
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