BAMAKO — Malians voted in a long-delayed parliamentary election on Sunday, barely a day 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 to elect new MPs to the 147-seat National Assembly even before the war-torn West African country recorded its first coronavirus infection on Wednesday.
No official turnout figures were released after the polls closed in the evening but it was clear to observers that fears of the virus and the threat posed by jihadists had kept the numbers down.
At midday, observers from a group of civil society associations had put it at 7.5 per cent.
Prime Minister Boubou Cisse admitted earlier that the turnout had not been very high.
"I appeal to the voters: remember to respect the barrier gestures and use the sanitary measures," he said as he voted, adding that the numbers voting were "sufficiently satisfactory".
Just hours before polls opened on Sunday came the news of the country's first coronavirus death – a 71-year-old man recently returned from France.
Mali's number of confirmed infections has risen to 20.
There are fears that the impoverished state of some 19 million people – where large swathes of territory lie outside state control – is particularly exposed to a COVID-19 outbreak.
"I came to vote, but I'm afraid," said Souleymane Diallo, a 34-year-old teacher voting in the capital Bamako.
"As you can see there's nobody here. Maybe because it's the morning, but it's also not surprising because of the situation."
The first elections results are not expected for several days. A second round is scheduled for April 19.
First elections since 2013
It is the country's first parliamentary poll 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 Keita's re-election, but the poll was postponed several times, largely due to security concerns.
Some 200,000 people displaced by the near-daily violence in Mali's centre and north were not able to vote, a government official has said.
The security ministry said that out of close to 12,500 polling stations, 274 were not able to open.
The army said it had been caught in one "ambush" in Madoro, near the Burkina Faso border, which has been a flashpoint for jihadist violence for months.
This time no military casualties were recorded while "five terrorists were neutralised".
Meanwhile 19 people were arrested in possession of 10 voting boxes in the northern town of Timbuktu.
An AFP reporter said that while the distance between people in queues was too close in Timbuktu, voters did wash their hands before entering polling stations.
Kidnapped opposition leader
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.
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.
It is "likely" he was 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.
President Keita expressed indignation over the incident and vowed that "no effort will be spared in securing (Cisse's) release".
Cisse's Union for the Republic and Democracy (URD) on Saturday urged its supporters to turn out in even greater numbers in response to the leader's ordeal.
However, several other opposition parties had called for the vote to be postponed due to coronavirus fears.
Hopes for peace
The country has been plagued by conflict since 2012, when rebels captured much of the country's arid north.
Jihadists overtook the rebels in the north and swept into the country's centre, accelerating a conflict which has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians.
Despite the numerous difficulties, experts nonetheless hope Sunday's election will lead to reforms that might drag Mali out of its cycle of violence.
In particular, the hope is that the new parliament will implement reforms from a peace agreement brokered between the Bamako government and several armed groups, in Algiers in 2015.
Implementation has been painfully slow, although this year saw the Malian army deploy units made up of both former rebels and regulars, one the provisions of the Algiers agreement.
The pact also provides for the decentralisation of governance in Mali, a demand of some of the rebel group. — AFP