Malian soldiers patrol in Bamako on Friday, ahead of Sunday's election. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

The last time Mali held a presidential election was about a year and a half after soldiers launched a coup that overthrew then-President Amadou Toumani Touré.

It was July 2013, and the West African nation was going through a tumultuous time: In 2012, Tuareg separatists took over Mali's north, and then Islamist extremists commandeered the rebellion. Civilians fled, and the al-Qaeda-linked extremists imposed sharia law on those who stayed behind.

Mali was a French colony until it won independence in 1960, and it took a large-scale French intervention in early 2013 to push the extremists back, clearing the way for the election.

Now, five years later, Malians will head to the polls to decide whether President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita deserves another term.

The country has remained insecure throughout Keita's presidency. There are still regular attacks by extremists, many of which target foreign troops. As The Washington Post reported last year, the peacekeeping mission in Mali is the world's most dangerous; more than 150 peacekeepers have been killed since 2013.

In one high-profile incident in 2015, extremists stormed the Radisson Blu hotel in the capital of Bamako, taking 170 guests and staff hostage and killing more than 20 people, including an American development worker. And a 2017 U.N. report found that attacks against Malian defense and security forces had “almost doubled” since the preceding reporting period.

Observers worry that the threat of violent groups may be enough to deter voters from visiting the polls Sunday.

“It’s the threat that's the issue, so it creates apprehension and tension,” said Joe Siegle, research director at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

Extremists want to “undermine confidence in the government and steer people away from democratic processes,” he said. “They want to feed the narrative that the government is illegitimate and not representing people.” 

Keita will face off against a number of opponents, including Soumaila Cissé, whom he also ran against in 2013. Keita, who will face 23 other candidates, is expected to win again, although results are not expected until Aug. 3. “It's not that he's wildly popular, but I don't think he is widely despised, either,” Siegle said.

According to the BBC, the Malian government has deployed 30,000 security officers to maintain calm during the election and quell fears among civilians. Still, some worry the elections will still not be credible.

Security challenges aside, Mali already has a history of low voter turnout, said Frances Brown, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. But because of the rapidly growing population, this election could see a significant youth turnout.

“As with voters in many fragile democracies, Malians may be disillusioned with their prospects to improve their real problems — to include unemployment among youth, Islamist militancy, corruption, north-south alienation, interethnic violence, crime — through the ballot box,” she said.

A peaceful election would itself serve as somewhat of a win for Keita, who has faced criticism for not doing enough to stamp out the threat of extremism and ethnic strife. “Violence is actually rising, with alarming reports of ethnically motivated killings,” Brown said.

Mahamat Saleh Annadif, who heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali, told Reuters that “the ease with which terrorists have managed to infiltrate the center, which is the breadbasket of the country … and spread inter-communal conflict and violent extremism … is very troubling.”

Keita has also had to face allegations that Malian troops are committing human rights violations. In June, the country had to grapple with mass graves that were found in the unstable central region. At the time, the defense minister acknowledged that the government had confirmed “the existence of mass graves implicating some armed forces personnel in serious violations.”

And earlier this year, the U.N. migration agency warned that the number of people displaced in the country's north was growing “due to the deterioration of the security situation.”

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