The delay means the military will miss the first deadline on its own timetable to return the country to civilian rule.
Mali’s interim government has postponed a constitutional referendum, an important step towards elections designed to restore democracy after a military takeover in 2020.
“The transitional government informs national and international opinion that the date of the referendum scheduled for March 19, 2023 … will be slightly postponed,” it said in a statement released on Friday.
The referendum is a milestone on the way to the elections promised for February. With the postponement, the army will miss the first deadline of a timetable it set to bring Mali back under civilian rule.
The announcement came a day after Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maiga told Al Jazeera that the referendum will take place “according to the Constitution and, God willing, this referendum will take place”.
“The deadline remains the date when we could negotiate with ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), and the Head of State is committed to respecting this date,” the government statement said.
The postponement had been expected for some time because almost no arrangements had been made for the vote and the draft constitution was not handed over to interim president and coup leader Assimi Goita until February 27.
ECOWAS lifted a series of trade and financial sanctions against Mali in July after the military government committed to a handover in March 2024. The sanctions were imposed in January 2022 when the military government considered holding power for up to five years.
The statement said the caretaker government would install subdivisions of the election management body in all regions of the country ahead of the vote.
The caretaker government said it wanted to familiarize the public with the draft constitution.
“The new date of the referendum will be determined after consultation with the Independent Electoral Management Authority and all stakeholders in the electoral process,” the statement said.
The new constitution is a key element of a massive reform project launched by the military to justify continuing to rule until 2024.
The draft constitution significantly strengthens the power of the president. Under this law, the president, rather than the government, “determines the policies of the nation”, appoints the prime minister and ministers, and has the right to dismiss them. The president could also dissolve the National Assembly.
Pressure from ECOWAS to bar members of the military government from standing for election has not allayed speculation about Goita’s intentions to run in 2024.
The draft constitution states that Mali is an “independent, sovereign, unitary, indivisible, democratic, secular and social republic”.
Imams in Mali have challenged the principle of secularism and called on Muslims to oppose it.
The draft proclaims any coup as an “inexplicable crime”.
But those who staged the 2020 coup and another in 2021 to consolidate their hold on power would be safe, as acts prior to the entry into force of the constitution would be covered by amnesty laws.
Mali is in the throes of an 11-year-old security crisis triggered by a regional uprising in the north that developed into a full-blown insurgency.
Military rule has led to a break with France, the country’s traditional ally, and closer ties with Russia.