The June 18 referendum could pave the way for presidential elections to hold in Mali in February 2024.
Malians will vote on Sunday to approve or reject constitutional amendments that would reinforce presidential powers before a promised transition from military rule back to democracy in the West African nation.
The referendum is the first in a series of scheduled polls meant to pave the way for presidential elections in February 2024, which Mali’s military leaders committed to hold following pressure from regional powers.
The military government delayed the referendum for three months citing logistical problems. Sunday’s vote is seen as an indicator of its commitment and capacity to organise voting in a country where armed groups have overrun swaths of its arid north and centre.
Frustrations about spiralling insecurity spurred two military takeovers in 2020 and 2021, but the government has been unable to tamp down the rebellion or improve livelihoods in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Last July, the Economic Community of West African States lifted a set of trade and financial sanctions against Mali after the military government committed to a March 2024 handover.
The sanctions were imposed in January 2022 when the military government was considering remaining in power for up to five years.
No clear consensus has emerged before Sunday’s vote.
Political parties have been split and the government has struggled to build momentum for its “Yes” campaign.
A rally at a 50,000-seat stadium in the southern capital Bamako was sparsely attended last week, prompting the authorities to offer free petrol and cash to citizens if they attend a similar event planned for Friday.
Opponents of the amendments have been concerned that the new constitution places more power in the president’s hands before the elections amid uncertainty over whether interim leader Assimi Goita will run. They have also questioned the legality of amendments carried out by a non-democratically elected government.
“Too much power in the hands of the future president will squash all the other institutions,” said Sidi Toure, a spokesperson for the opposition party PARENA, noting that the new constitution excludes citizens with dual nationality from running for president.
“Mali and Malians are profoundly divided,” said Toure, whose party has aligned with a “No” vote.
An armed group that signed a major 2015 peace deal – which has been shaky since the military took power – pulled out of the rewriting process and is boycotting the vote, describing the text as “not sufficiently inclusive”.
Religious leaders in the Muslim-majority country have also spoken against the decision not to remove secularism as a defining feature of the state, saying it is a legacy of Mali’s former colonial ruler France.
But advocates have spoken in favour of aspects of the proposed changes, including the creation of a separate court of auditors, the legitimisation of traditional leadership and a clause to include national languages as official alongside French.
Ibrahima Sangho, the head of a local election monitoring group, said voter turnout would be a bellwether of public support for the interim authorities and their policies.
“A low participation rate will indicate that they have no legitimacy,” he said.
In Bamako, where recurring electricity and water cuts have worsened in recent months, carpenter Sory Diakite complained, “There are grievances that are not being addressed.”
“These problems will not influence my choice,” he added. “I will vote in favour.”
In the central cities of Gao and Mopti, where violence is rife, the blackouts and insecurity have prompted calls from some quarters to snub the referendum.
“I am not voting for any of this,” said Fatouma Harber, a blogger based in the city of Timbuktu.
“My frustration is seeing military officials … organise a referendum and change the constitution.”