Election held despite first reported Covid-19 death
BAMAKO: Malians headed to the polls yesterday 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 jihadists.
There were security fears about the vote even before the war-torn West African country recorded its first coronavirus infection on Wednesday.
Some 200,000 people displaced by the near-daily violence in Mali’s centre and north will 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 some 19 million people — where large swaths 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 local time yesterday, the country’s first coronavirus death was announced, with the number of infections rising to 18.
The poll will see new MPs elected to the 147-seat National Assembly for the first time since 2013, when 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 Mr Keita’s re-election, but the poll was postponed several times, largely due to security concerns.
After yesterday’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 kidnapped on Wednesday while campaigning in the centre of the country.
Mr Cisse, 70, who has been runnerup 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 jihadists loyal to Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, who leads a branch of the al-Qaeda-aligned GSIM active in the Sahel, according to a security source and a local official.
Mr 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 were 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 sanitisers available.
Cisse’s Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) on Saturday urged its supporters to turn out in even greater numbers.