Earlier this year, Mali’s military run government delayed democratic elections for up to five years — prolonging a promised 18-month democratic transition into 2026 and beyond.
Mali is not new to democratic instability; the military has orchestrated three coups in the past decade — including two in the last 18 months. These coups and the recently delayed elections reveal the weaknesses of Mali’s democracy.
The junta first committed to the 18-month democratic transition after a coup in August 2020. However, a second coup in May 2021 threw these planned elections into uncertainty. At first, the junta promised that the 2022 elections would occur as planned. But, in November 2021, the government first hinted that elections may be delayed.
Mali’s recent coup can be categorized as a promissory coup — an increasing phenomenon where militaries claim to defend democracy and promise to hold democratic elections. However, according to political scientist Nancy Bermeo, these promissory coups rarely strengthen democracy and often instead lead to manipulated elections that increase a junta’s power and erode democratic norms.
Mali is familiar with these threats to democracy. While Mali was once hailed as a “model democracy,” the West African country has had only one peaceful transition of power in the past 50 years — and five military coups.
While regular elections occurred during the 1990s and 2000s, some of these elections were not perceived as free and fair. The opposition even boycotted the 1997 presidential elections in protest of the ruling party’s antidemocratic activities. And, during the 2000s, the President weakened opposition parties by building large coalitions that left little room for political dissent.
As the opposition weakened so did democracy. Traditionally, opposition parties challenge the government, creating a space for public discourse and holding the ruling party accountable. However, Mali’s opposition parties grew too weak to engage in political debate. So, the President was free to exercise strong executive power while maintaining a facade of public debate.
Therefore, while Mali appeared to have a well-functioning democracy, their democratic “strength” was just an illusion.
These democratic weaknesses surfaced again in 2012 as worries spread that the President would manipulate elections to increase his power. Amid this tense political atmosphere, a group of Islamic militants began to attack and take control of cities in Northern Mali.
In the spring of 2012, the military arrested the President and took control of the government — taking advantage of Mali’s weak democratic foundation as the country was thrust into a violent conflict.
While Mali soon transitioned back to democracy, the government remained plagued by corruption, and the violent conflict intensified, spreading into central Mali.
Notably, despite these challenges, democracy remained popular in Mali. A 2020 Afrobarometer poll found that a majority of Malians supported democracy and rejected military rule. However, hinting at continuous political turmoil, only 47% of Malians supported the President while 82% trusted the military.
So, Malians distrusted the government but supported democracy — and the military.
These tensions erupted in the summer of 2020 when a Constitutional Court rejected the results of delayed parliamentary elections — a decision that increased the President’s legislative majority. As protests broke out demanding the President’s resignation, soldiers also shared concerns of entrenched military corruption and inadequate government support.
In late August, the military seized control of the government.
Under pressure from international sanctions, the junta committed to an 18-month transition to democracy — the same timeline that the government extended earlier this year.
The government blames the elections’ delay on the intensifying, decade-long armed conflict with Islamic militias. And the junta’s security concerns are legitimate. Yet, over the past few months, the government alienated and expelled international forces working with Mali to fight the insurgent forces.
Instead, the junta strengthened their relationship with the Russian Wagner Group — a paramilitary organization accused of human rights abuses and closely tied to the Russian government. The junta’s relationship with the Wagner Group increased tensions between Mali and its international partners.
These tensions intensified in January 2022 when Mali dismissed Danish forces providing military assistance. When the French foreign minister strongly protested this move, the junta expelled the French ambassador and leading to the withdrawal of French troops. The French then announced that a partnership with the junta was “no longer an option,” citing both the delayed elections and the junta’s relationship with the Wagner Group. The French Foreign Minister asked, “Why should we cooperate with this type of junta?”
So, at the same time that the junta claims that the violent conflict prevents democratic elections, the government is distancing themselves from important military allies. These actions potentially stand to worsen the security situation. Will the violence continue to intensify, providing the junta with more excuses to push elections farther into the future?
And, as the junta distances themselves from democratic allies, the government is growing closer to autocratic forces. Recently, the junta strengthened their relationship with the Russian Wagner Group and purchased Russian military equipment.
So, since Mali has a history of democratic instability, deepening ties to authoritarian governments and no scheduled elections, one wonders — is the junta moving away from democracy?
The fallout from the delayed elections also poses an economic threat to Malians. In response to the junta’s recent actions, the international community imposed harsh economic and political sanctions, freezing Mali’s access to regional economic markets and shuting the landlocked country’s borders.
Humanitarian groups warn that these sanctions block foreign aid and pose devastating consequences for everyday Malians. Already, more than 7.5 million Malians need humanitarian assistance, and citizens are suffering from the worst food insecurity in 10 years.
Instead of cooperating with international pressure, the junta filed a lawsuit against the sanctions — choosing to default on debts and deprive Malians of essential aid rather than commit to democracy.
So, Mali’s government is delaying democratic elections, alienating democratic allies, embracing authoritarian forces, and taking actions that threaten their citizen’s safety and economic security. One wonders, will the junta keep their promises? Will Mali ever transition back to democracy?
 Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 5–19. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.  Wing, Susanna D. “Mali: Politics of a Crisis.” African Affairs 112, no. 448 (May 29, 2013): 476–85. https://doi.org/10.1093/afraf/adt037.  Ibid.  Ibid.
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