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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Mali counts the cost of democracy
Presidential candidate sporting a wooden mask
Mali is awash with masks and money for candidates
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By the BBC's Joan Baxter
In the beginning they were only five.

But now Mali's election organisers find themselves with 24 presidential candidates.

"It's a catastrophe," says Ismayila Yoro Dicko, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry, and it sounds like an understatement.

It humiliates serious candidates... who appear on evening television along with clowns who are running for president.

Malian seamstress
Mali may be one of Africa's poorest countries, but it is holding what could turn out to be extremely expensive presidential elections.

Mr Dicko says no one knows yet how much the elections will cost, but it will certainly be more than organisers bargained for and perhaps even more than the estimated $30 million spent in 1997.

And despite the huge expenditure, the 1997 elections were boycotted by the opposition.

Unforeseen costs

If there is no clear winner in the voting on 28 April, there will be a second round with just two candidates on 12 May.

For now, the ministry is trying to cope with the 24 candidates, each of whom is costing organisers $300,000.

A musical group entertaining voters
Presidential candidates woo voters with cash and songs

This includes printing the ballots and also paying their representatives, whom the constitution stipulates should be present in all 12,400 polling booths.

Mr Dicko says donor countries that are financing the elections have agreed to help cover the unforeseen costs - especially the $7 million for the 24 candidacies.

He thinks Mali's constitution should be changed to limit the number of candidates.


He says many of those running do not have enough supporters to place in even a handful of polling booths.

The constitutional court, which must approve all candidacies, eliminated only one would-be presidential candidate, who failed to pay the required deposit equal to about $7,000.

Vote for the one who will make you laugh, or those who will make you cry.

Habib Dembele

She also happened to be the only woman and would have been Mali's first-ever female presidential candidate.

Many Malians are either amused or dismayed that so many individuals they call "nobodies" have dared to present themselves as presidential candidates.

"It humiliates serious candidates, respected men such as former prime ministers and even a former head of state, who appear on evening television along with clowns who are running for president," says a seamstress in Bamako.

Chicken feast

In fact, there is a candidate who might admit to being a clown.

He is Mali's most popular comedian, Habib Dembele, affectionately known as Guimba.

Habib 'Guimba' Dembele, Malian comedian
Habib Dembele says his bid for power is no laughing matter

In the past, Guimba has appeared on Malian television satirising politicians on the campaign trail by holding up a squawking chicken and promising voters they will feast on chicken if they elect him.

Now that he is a presidential candidate himself, he quips, with a smile:

"I've never been more serious. I had to struggle to pay the deposit to run and that's no joking matter. I have a slogan.

"It's your choice - vote for the one who will make you laugh, or those who will make you cry."


Many of the candidates cannot be construed as serious contenders for presidential office.

Others may not have any chance of winning or even of getting the 5% of the vote they would need to recover their deposits.

A street in the capital Bamako
Corruption and debt has been growing side by side with poverty and misery in Mali

But they still command a great deal of respect in the country.

Mande Sidibe, who resigned his post as prime minister to campaign as an independent candidate, caused serious division in the ruling party, Adema, when he announced his candidacy.

The ruling party had elected its candidate, finance minister Soumaila Cisse, in American-style primaries that Mr Sidibe alleged were invalid because of vote-buying.

'No charisma'

Mr Sidibe, who spent 18 years with the IMF and 10 years with the West African Central Bank, denounces corruption and the abuse of public finances, promising to "serve Mali".

While his entourage maintains he will go through to a second round of voting, most people discount his chances.

"He has not the charisma or the personality to be president of Mali," says one prominent Malian citizen.

Mali's women and youth are ready for revolution

Oumar Mariko

"Malians view him as a European because he was away for so long."

Another respected candidate who is not likely to go to a second round but whose party, Parena, has considerable weight to influence voting after the first round, is Tiebile Drame.

Mr Drame, a lawyer, is known for his work with Amnesty International.


At the far end of the spectrum of candidates is Oumar Mariko, a former student leader, generally credited with spearheading the popular revolution in March 1991 that led to the overthrow of General Moussa Traore.

Mr Mariko, an outspoken critic of globalisation and the Bretton Woods institutions, is standing as the head of a small political party, Sadi.

A street vendor in the capital, Bamako
Most electors have not yet picked up their voting cards.

He has only a single aging vehicle with which to campaign and often arrives late for his own rallies, attended by dedicated followers.

Mr Mariko denounces the past ten years of Mali's democracy as a fašade, in which corruption and debt grew side by side with poverty and misery.

He is critical of the vast sums of money being spent on election campaigning by front-running candidates who have held high government positions, alleging this is all money that belongs to the people.

Mr Mariko says that politicians are corrupting the public and Mali's democracy with the money they give out in their campaigns.

"I think Mali's women and youth are ready for revolution," he says.

"My chances are good."

A significant percentage of the 5.4 million Malians eligible to vote appear to have little interest in the elections.

Just days before voting, the majority of the electorate in the capital, Bamako, have still not picked up their voters' cards.

See also:

21 Nov 01 | Africa
Mali bows to anti-reform protests
22 Nov 00 | Africa
Mali's monumental folly?
16 Feb 00 | Africa
Economist named as new Mali PM
19 Oct 99 | Africa
Albright praises Malian democracy
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