Malians voted on Sunday in a referendum on changing the constitution that the ruling military junta and regional powers have said will pave the way to elections and a return to civilian rule.
The junta, which seized power in coups in 2020 and 2021, promised to hold the plebiscite as part of a transition to democracy, under pressure from the West African regional bloc the Economic Community Of West Africa States.
Around 8.4 million voters are expected at the polls. Kollet Sangare, a 35-year-old medical assistant was one of the first to cast a ballot at a polling station in the capital where few had lined up early on Sunday.
“I hope the side I voted for will win,” he said.
Some of the changes in the committee-drafted constitution are contentious, with proponents saying they would strengthen fragile political institutions and opponents saying they would give too much power to the president.
But regional bodies and the United Nations see the referendum itself as an important test of the junta’s willingness to stick to the transition and hold a nationwide democratic process, particularly at a time when Islamist militants are stepping up attacks.
“With this project, we are betting on the future of our state, the restoration of its authority, and the regained trust between institutions and citizens,” interim president Assimi Goita said in a televised speech on Friday.
The draft includes updates that have been proposed in past failed efforts to revise the constitution that supporters hope will reinforce democracy and address divisions, including the creation of a second parliamentary chamber to boost representation from across Mali.
The proposed establishment of a separate court of auditors for state spending will bring Mali in line with a directive from the West African Economic and Monetary Union from 2000.
But some opposition parties, pro-democracy groups and campaigners for the ‘No’ vote say the non-democratically elected authorities such as the junta have no right to oversee such a substantial constitutional overhaul.
They also say the proposed constitution hands excessive authority to the president including over the legislative process.
“I am for a revision of the constitution but not this referendum. The legitimacy of the actors, the process …I think we could have done better,” lawyer Fousseini Ag Yehia said in the capital Bamako on Saturday.
Northern Mali armed groups that signed a 2015 Algiers peace deal, which has been shaky since the junta took power, have also called for the boycott of the referendum saying the process was “not sufficiently inclusive”.
Ahmoudane Ag Ikmasse a former member of parliament for the northern town of Kidal, said no voting was taking place on Sunday.
“I’ve just driven across the city, no vote, nothing at all and that’s how it is in the localities around Kidal,” he told Reuters by telephone.
Provisional results are expected within 72 hours of the vote. Presidential elections are scheduled for February 2024.