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Western donors have a lot riding on Mali election’s success

Malians line up to vote in the country’s presidential election in Timbuktu on July 28, 2013.

JOE PENNEY/REUTERS

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There is a sigh of relief in Paris because Mali's election appears to have gone smoothly. Canada, too, seems to be getting what it wanted: a quick vote for a new, elected president. It is a success. What could go wrong?

Just more than six months ago, Mali was on the edge of disaster, with Islamist fighters bearing down on the capital, Bamako. Now, it has had a vote with good turnout that might even yield a first-ballot winner when final results of the first round are announced on Friday.

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That might be the signal for Western countries to rush in with aid. The question is whether they would stay engaged enough to press Mali to deal with the problems, notably the rift between the government in Bamako and the country's Tuareg-populated north, that fed its crisis in the first place.

An election turns the page on the military coup that swept out an elected government 16 months ago, but that was not Mali's only problem. The disaffection of Tuaregs in the north led to a rebellion that was hijacked by Islamist extremists. And the world has an interest in pressing for some kind of reconciliation to prevent Mali's north from becoming al-Qaeda territory again.

Before the coup, Canada had strong ties to Mali, one of the biggest recipients of Canadian aid. However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper had no interest in joining France when it sent in troops in January to stop Islamists linked to al-Qaeda – except for sending a C-17 cargo plane. Mali's election opens the door to restoring Canadian ties.

Ottawa cut off direct aid to Bamako after the coup. "Once a president-elect is confirmed, Canada will be reviewing all aspects of our relationship with Mali," said Rick Roth, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. Other international donors, notably the European Union, have pledged $3-billion in aid tied to the restoration of democracy.

Western countries pushed for the election to happen fast, and Canada was among the loudest. In January, when French and Malian troops were still preparing to push Islamists out of northern Mali towns like Timbuktu, Canadian officials pressed Mali's government to stick to a plan to hold elections this summer – along with the United States, which by law could not provide military assistance to Mali until it restored democracy. France, itching to withdraw its troops from Mali, relentlessly insisted the July deadline for an election be met.

"The international community needs these elections, for various reasons," said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council's Michael S. Ansari Africa Center. "Everyone's got a stake in the elections being viewed as legitimate, and everyone's going to put out press releases praising the elections to high heaven."

There is a lot of positive, starting with the fact that France's bold intervention made the election possible. Turnout was relatively high in the south, where 90 per cent of Mali's population lives. But there are causes for worry.

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To start with, there was no time to update the electoral lists, so Malians who came of voting age since 2009, perhaps half a million, did not get to cast a ballot. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people also could not vote. The north had few registered voters, and The Wall Street Journal found few of those were turning up to vote, either because of intimidation or disaffection with the political system, which is dominated by southern Malians.

And the election is likely to produce a winner, probably former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known as IBK, connected with unimpressive past governments that had a track record of alienating Tuaregs in the north. "It's going to be the same political elites that brought Mali to the crisis in the first place," Mr. Pham said.

But most important for the rest of the world is whether the new government makes real attempts to reconcile with moderate Tuaregs in the north to prevent it from becoming a lawless zone where extremists can operate again.

The question is whether the rest of the world applies pressure on the new government to do that, or decides that with an election and some aid, the job is pretty much done. "That's an invitation to renewed conflict down the road," Mr. Pham said.

Campbell Clark writes about foreign affairs from Ottawa.

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