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Mali’s elections saw some Islamist militant violence. Here’s what these patterns suggest.

Mali President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta stands at the closing of his presidential inauguration ceremony Tuesday in Bamako, Mali. (Reuters)

On Sept. 4, Mali’s president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, was sworn in for a second term. Keïta won 67 percent of the vote in Mali’s recent presidential elections, which went to a runoff Aug. 12.

Not all Malians are enthusiastic about the president, however: Opposition candidates alleged fraud, and turnout was 34 percent because of a combination of voter apathy and widespread violence.

During his first term, Keïta failed to rein in the country’s multisided civil war. Various foreign military forces deployed in Mali have also been unable to end the conflict. In the lead-up to the two-round election in July and August, news coverage focused on concerns that Islamist militants affiliated with al-Qaeda would disrupt the vote. So what happened?

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Islamist militants only attacked certain places

Islamist militants did not stage large-scale attacks in the capital or other major cities on the two voting days. There were, however, many suspected Islamist militant attacks where gunmen shut down polling places and stole or destroyed materials. These incidents were concentrated in areas like central Mali, where Islamist militants have long sought to chase out political elites. Such attacks entrenched Islamist militant influence, rather than extending it geographically. And Islamist militants seemed to do little to disrupt the vote in the far north, another Islamist militant stronghold.

Mopti, the central region that has emerged as a “Wild West” since 2015, had the highest concentration of polling office closures. After the first round of voting on July 29, authorities released a list of 871 polling offices where voters could not cast ballots “for various reasons.” More than 700 of these were in Mopti.

After the Aug. 12 voting round, authorities again listed polling offices that had been closed. Out of 493 offices, 444 were in Mopti. In the far northern region of Kidal, in contrast, Islamist militants pursued sporadic and low-casualty efforts, such as firing mortar shells at a polling office. Authorities reported not a single closure in Kidal.

What explains these patterns?

First, although the Islamist militants in central and northern Mali belong to the same broad organization, their political behaviors differ. In the widely overlooked crisis in Mopti, Islamist militants, ethnic militias and bandits perpetrate violence with relative impunity. Government responses, including military operations rife with human rights abuses, have largely exacerbated rather than contained the conflict.

The 2012 rebellion in the north lit the Islamist militant fuse in Mopti, but the deeper causes of violence there include widespread anger at “rackets”: the village heads, pasture managers, judges and elected politicians who have long colluded to extort payments from poor herders. Corrupt judges then issue biased judgments in land disputes. As young herders react against these trends, jihadism has in part become a vehicle for an underclass to overthrow the local elite.

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Today, Mopti is a region with both interethnic and intra-ethnic conflicts. Islamist militants, as well as the bandits and vigilantes who profit from the atmosphere of insecurity, have assassinated, intimidated and expelled local elites in Mopti. The worst-hit administrative districts in the Mopti region amid the broader crisis were also the districts with the highest number of polling closures on July 29 and Aug. 12. The violence on the voting days — with gunmen bursting into polling places, demanding materials and even shooting election workers — was a message to both the national elite and the local elite in Mopti and adjacent areas: Islamist militants want the government out.

There was less violence in the north

In Kidal, the Islamist militant movement has a murkier relationship with local and national elites. The Islamist militant leader in the far north, Iyad ag Ghali, is a well-connected Tuareg politician with personal and clan ties to the Tuareg elite. In the 2012 rebellion, some of the Tuareg elites from Kidal fought alongside him, as they had done in the non-Islamist militant rebellions he led in 1990 and 2006. Since 2013, when most of those elites broke with him and returned to mainstream politics, it has been difficult to determine whether any back-channel ties remain.

On the 2018 election days, ag Ghali’s former allies helped secure the vote in Kidal. The relatively smooth voting in Kidal may suggest that at the very least, ag Ghali’s forces did not view this election as a crucial milestone in their battle to control Kidal and were even willing to let local elites manage the process.

Islamist militants think on a longer timeline

Second, it’s important to understand the rationale of Mali’s Islamist militants. Like Islamist militants elsewhere, the Islamist militant leaders in Mali reject the entire constitutional-democratic political system. Ag Ghali has been offering versions of this message since 2012, and he was already waging an insurgency during the last presidential election in 2013. An individual election, then, does not necessarily represent a major crossroads for him.

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Consider ag Ghali’s statement before the elections (translated here): After denouncing the vote, the statement quickly pivoted to the enemies that really concern him: France, rival militias and Sahelian governments with soldiers in Mali. Ag Ghali’s strategy emphasizes expelling foreign — especially French — forces from Mali and building popular support among ordinary Muslims. Disrupting an individual election is not crucial to this program.

Ag Ghali commands the Islamist militant forces in both the north and the center, but his forces sometimes adapt their actions to local political circumstances. In the north, the events that elicit the most aggressive reactions from Islamist militants are military-political milestones that could undermine ag Ghali’s long-term position. An example would be the January 2017 suicide bombing that targeted a nascent effort to conduct joint patrols involving Malian soldiers and northern militias. The joint patrols are a provision of the 2015 peace accord between the Malian government and northern armed groups. By striking the patrols, Islamist militants undermined the broader peace process.

Periodically, Islamist militant forces strike Mali’s capital and target neighboring countries, as if to remind the Malian government and the international community that the Islamist militant threat is national and regional, and not just localized. But ag Ghali seems to understand that his followers were not strong enough to disrupt Mali’s elections altogether or prevent the winner from assuming the presidency.

In the short term, Islamist militants appeared satisfied with an outcome where they showcased their power in Mopti, while biding their time in the north. Going forward, Mali’s elections have affirmed a grim status quo — and now the real struggle to determine who controls Mali will resume.

Alexander Thurston is a visiting assistant professor of political science and comparative religion at Miami University in Ohio. He is the author of Sahel Blog.