By James Tasamba
KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) - Voters in Mali went to the polls Sunday to elect parliamentary representatives despite concerns about security and coronavirus pandemic.
Mali has reported 18 cases of COVID-19 so far and the first death from the virus was reported Saturday.
Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in a televised address on Wednesday night said the elections would be conducted with due respect to preventive measures against the coronavirus spread.
Government this week announced several measures to contain the virus, including night curfew since Thursday.
Civil society organizations had demanded for a postponement of the election.
But President Keita noted the elections were crucial for Mali’s peace efforts.
A national dialogue last December recommended immediate renewal of the mandate of the lawmakers.
The mandate of the outgoing parliament expired in 2018.
Campaigning ended on Friday evening.
Polling stations opened 8am GMT with a few people ready to vote, and will close at 6pm GMT, according to local media.
COVID-19 awareness posters were visible at polling stations as well as hand washing kits and hand sanitizers, media reports said, adding that majority of the voters as well as polling officials wore masks.
The voter turn-out was expected to be low, the reports said quoting analysts.
The election is to renew the mandate of 147 lawmakers in two rounds on Sunday and April 19.
The last election was conducted in 2013 which granted majority to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s Rally for Mali Party.
The elections came days after main opposition leader Soumaila Cisse was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen on Wednesday in the Timbuktu region while on a campaign trail, and his bodyguard was killed in the process.
Cisse, 70, is the head of URD (Union of the Republic and Democracy) and emerged second in 2018 presidential election.
He was reportedly kidnapped near his stronghold of Niafunke. His whereabouts were still unknown as of filing of this report.
His party in a statement Saturday called for mass participation in the legislative election despite the kidnapping of its leader.
"We have to make the party come out even bigger from this ordeal," it said.
The party has 18 lawmakers in the outgoing parliament.
Tiebile Drame, the Malian minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, told an interview with French media this week that information indicates that Cisse was kidnapped by Group Support for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), an Al- Qaeda-linked organization.
He said the Malian government has demanded his immediate release.
Mali had postponed the legislative elections twice since 2018 over security concerns.
The election was scheduled for late 2018 after the re-election of Keita.
Since 2012 despite local and international efforts to restore security in the country, the situation remains volatile in some parts of Mali such as the north-central area especially in Gourma, where extremists groups have a strong foothold.