Mali Holds Vote Despite Virus, Kidnapped Opposition Leader

(Bloomberg) -- Malians voted in parliamentary elections on Sunday despite a partial lockdown to contain the coronavirus and with the main opposition leader being held hostage by suspected Islamist militants.

Voters in the capital Bamako were hesitant to venture out, heeding calls from authorities and NGOs to stay indoors as much as possible. “I believe voter turnout will be very low,” Kalilou Sidibe, a political analyst and professor of political science and law at the University of Bamako, said by phone.

While Ethiopia postponed its August vote because of the pandemic, Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 75, said there was no need to call off the ballot and precautions would be in place for voters at polling stations across the country. Mali has closed its borders and introduced a curfew to contain the disease. It’s also shut schools and banned gatherings of more than 50 people, although mosques remain open.

Mali Holds Vote Despite Virus, Kidnapped Opposition Leader

Voters would be asked to wash their hands and keep at least one meter (3.3 feet) apart when casting their ballots, Keita said in a televised address on April 10. The government has reported 216 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and 13 deaths.

The West African nation of 20 million people, the third-biggest gold producer in sub-Saharan Africa and the continent’s largest cotton grower, is at the frontline of a regional war against jihadists.

The election, the final round of a two-part vote, will see new lawmakers elected to the 147-seat national assembly for the first time since 2013, with the ruling party expected to keep its majority. The first round on March 29 was marked by the destruction of ballot boxes, and voter turnout in Bamako was 12.5%, according to government officials.

Held Hostage

It takes place as the opposition leader, Soumaila Cisse, is being held by suspected militants in the country’s north. The 70-year-old Cisse, the main challenger in the 2018 presidential election, was campaigning in a village near his stronghold Niafunke in the Timbuktu region last month when he was abducted.

The kidnapping is an escalation of a conflict that has seen thousands of civilians and soldiers killed in recent years. There are still doubts if voting can take place in some parts of the country.

The coronavirus will likely cause disruptions to elections across the region. Voting is scheduled in as many as 15 sub-Saharan African countries this year, including Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Burkina Faso and Ghana. Guinea held a controversial referendum last month that’s likely to see its President Alpha Conde extend his time in power.

“Leaders who decide to hold planned elections risk hastening the virus’ transmission,” according to Judd Devermont, director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Africa program. “The Covid-19 outbreak presents an opportunity for leaders to strengthen their grip on power, exploiting health restrictions to suppress turnout,” Devermont said.

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