It is commonly known that monetary remittances, the funds that foreigners working abroad send back to their origin countries, make up an important part of many developing nations’ economies. Less commented on, however, are social remittances, or the influence migrants exert on their home countries’ politics.

One of the most important mechanisms for social remittances is the absentee ballot. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 115 countries or territories now grant voting rights to their citizens living abroad. External voting is especially important for African countries, which send huge numbers of people abroad and have undergone major political transitions in recent decades. A case in point is Mali -- which held a first round of presidential elections on July 28 and a second round on August 11. For that country, winning external votes is as important for unity and political legitimacy as it is for the actual outcome of the race.


Mali, a landlocked West African country, has a long history of migration and a short one of democracy. Faith in the political process there has recently declined due to corruption and an unprecedented security crisis in March 2012, when a military coup, jihadist attacks, and a Tuareg separatist insurgency threatened to pull the country under.

In response to the upheaval, in December 2012, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2085, which paved the way for a French-backed intervention and urged Malian transitional authorities to finalize a road map to democracy through a “broad-based political dialogue” and a “peaceful, credible, and inclusive” presidential election. When, in June 2013, the Malian government and two of the Tuareg separatist groups finally signed the Ouagadougou Agreement to end the fighting, they also agreed to hold presidential elections of the sort that the United Nations had encouraged.

To be sure, making those elections inclusive would never have been an easy feat, given the country’s internal instability and the scores of migrants and refugees outside the country. But Mali does have some experience with external voting: Since the 1991 overthrow of the military government of Moussa Traoré, it has worked to include its diaspora in the political process. That meant formally recognizing international branches of Mali’s domestic political parties and granting external voting rights to citizens abroad. The goal was to acknowledge both those parties’ role in fighting against dictatorship and the diaspora’s increasing contribution to its birth country’s economic development.

Despite those generous rights, however, the external turnout rate has remained considerably lower than the internal one, which itself is not particularly high. That reflects a number of problems: The migrants are scattered wide and far, many of them face rough conditions abroad, and they have trouble making it through their consulates’ difficult registration procedures. More important, however, low turnout reflects serious doubts about the competence of Malian politicians -- a view shared by the country’s domestic counterparts.

As they have in the run-up to past elections, those problems plagued the rush to register Malians living abroad before this summer’s election. This time, however, the stakes seemed higher and there was some hope (perhaps unfounded) in the air as the Malian political machinery creaked to life and party leaders with the funds to do so hit the road.


The African continent is the primary destination for Malian migrants. Just over 80 percent reside in African countries, where they fill labor shortages in cocoa, coffee, and peanut plantations. The rest live in the Arab world (about 16 percent), Europe and North America (about three percent), and other parts of the world (about one percent).

Given the strategic importance of Africa, several top candidates in this year’s election -- such as Soumaïla Cissé of the Union for the Republic and Democracy, Dramane Dembelé, a former finance minister who was running on behalf of Mali’s biggest party, ADEMA, and Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, a former prime minister and president of Mali’s National Assembly running for Rally for Mali -- toured the continent, specifically Gabon and nearby Côte d’Ivoire.

Côte d’Ivoire has long been a favorite destination for Malian laborers. In the 2007 presidential race, the 366,600 registered voters there accounted for 59 percent of the external voting population. Despite best efforts, however, the number of registered voters fell this year. Post-electoral violence in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010 pushed many Malians to head back home. The violence also disrupted the administrative census (called RAVEC) that had been organized a few years ago to count Malians at home and abroad and register those eligible to vote.

In Europe -- especially in France, which has been Malian migrants' primary European destination since the colonial era -- partisans have plastered posters for their favorite candidates along the streets of suburban Paris. Excited to vote, in mid-July, some Malians even took to the streets to protest against the impossible bureaucratic red tape that prevented them from registering. In the wake of the uproar, more Malians were allowed to sign up -- the registered Malian population in France increased by 24 percent, from 24,494 voters in 2007 to 30,354 in 2013 -- but the rise was smaller than it should have been. 

In other parts of the world, enrolled Malian voters are less noticeable. Since 2007, registered populations in the Middle East and the Americas dropped by a couple thousand. But registered populations rose in Asia, especially in China. That rise attests to the fact that more Malians are leaving Africa entriely, due to Africa’s own regional crises, and that many European countries have slammed their borders shut in recent years. As a result of the surge in immigrants, Malian authorities even added a second Chinese polling station in Guangzhou to the one that already existed in Beijing. Migrants, mostly traders, have campaigned there with aplomb.

Overall -- and quite disappointingly -- the total number of regular Malian migrants registered to vote abroad decreased significantly this year. Still, it is worth remembering that, in 2007, the total weight of out-of-country voters was roughly equivalent to that of the average region within Mali. Even more, these voters have an outsized influence on the families they left behind who depend on their remittances. That remains true today.


There is yet more bad news: Beyond the pool of regular Malian migrants who have moved to other African countries, Europe, or Asia in search of work, there are at least 173,000 refugees who have fled since 2012 to Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and Niger due to the escalating armed conflict. With help from the UN Refugee Agency, which previously facilitated out-of-country voting by refugees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Sudan, Malian embassies tried to register them prior to the voting.

But a couple of days before the polls opened, the agency officially warned that refugees’ electoral participation could not be considered meaningful. Whether camped out in hastily erected tents or hosted by family members, Mali’s refugees endure difficult conditions. A significant number lost their identification cards while fleeing their homelands. A high percentage of them are women, whose electoral abstention has been traditionally high, and children. Furthermore, according to nongovernmental organization reports, some men had returned to their farms to take full advantage of the rainy season.

According to people I interviewed, most refugees did not receive their NINA cards (either at all or not on time), nor could they be found on the RAVEC lists. In other words, administrative barriers and logistical problems likely damaged the prospects of a true national reconciliation inclusive of all political and social groups.


Although the registration efforts were disappointing, and many predicted mayhem inside and outside Mali on election day, the first round of voting went well. (There were, of course, some imperfections, according to the European Union’s chief observer to Mali.) Released on August 2, provisional results showed that the electoral participation (3.4 million voters, or 51.5 percent of registered voters) reached an all-time high since the 1991 revolution. Further, the rate of voting outside Mali more than doubled since 2007 (from 19.3 percent of registered voters to 44.6 percent). All this reverses a trend toward abstention that had begun under former Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré and speaks to the population’s hopes for stability.

Within the promising bigger picture, though, was one troubling spot: the turnout rate among refugees. According to some sources yet to be confirmed, only 811 voters out of 11,355 registered refugees showed up in Mauritania, 323 out of 4,161 in Niger, and 85 out of 3,504 in Burkina Faso. The problems were not violence but mostly administrative, just as during the registration process. Considering that most refugees are Tuaregs from northern Mali, it would have been an extremely welcome sign of national reconciliation if more had been registered and been able to cast ballots. Above all else, it would have brought the real spirit of the Ouagadougou agreement home to ordinary citizens.

The first round of voting did not result in a definitive victory for any candidate. Keïta seems to have obtained around 40 percent of the votes, with 1.2 million voters throughout and beyond Mali. Keïta is considered close to the French government as well as to some religious leaders. He is seen as ambivalent toward the military junta and representative of the Mali “patriotic vote.” His main challenger, Cissé, who was staunch in his opposition to the military coup, received about 20 percent of the vote, with 0.6 million votes. Far behind, Dembélé obtained around 10 percent, with 0.3 million votes. All of the other candidates got five percent or less. 

Closer examination reveals that Keïta received far less support from the diaspora than from the local population. Whereas Keïta won 20 percent more votes than Cissé inside Mali, he won only 14 percent more outside of it. That is likely a result of Keïta’s relative unpopularity in Côte d’Ivoire. Keïta befriended Laurent Gbagbo, who would become the president of Côte d’Ivoire, during his student years in Paris and had kept up ties to him, both of them having been in the influential African network of the Socialist International and of the French Socialist Party. In violence following Gbagbo’s disputed 2010 reelection, pro-Gbagbo forces victimized thousands of West Africans. As reported by Human Rights Watch, Malian citizens witnessed their houses or shops bombed with grenades. Others were beaten or executed by militiamen or mobs. Keïta has stuck by Gbagbo’s side since then, even denying his friend’s responsibility in crimes committed against Malian migrants.


Last Sunday, Malians returned to the polls for the runoff between Keïta and Cissé. Like the last round, this one ran smoothly -- it was interrupted only by rain in Bamako. With votes still being counted, Keïta looks set to win. In some sense, this peaceful election after Mali’s near disintegration is victory enough. But it is difficult to say whether this decisive presidential election was inclusive enough to begin healing the country’s wounds.

Many migrants and refugees -- and even many Malians at home -- were unable to cast their ballots and make decisions about their country’s political future. It is not yet known whether the disenfranchised will support the future administration. With the name of the future president still awaited, Mali can only hope that the years ahead will be filled with less uncertainty than these last two very long and very cruel ones have been.

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