Mali's Scattered Democracy

How Migrants from Paris to Guangzhou Influence the Vote

Poll workers in Mali counting votes in Sunday's high-stakes presidential runoff, August 11, 2013. Joe Penney / Courtesy Reuters

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

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