Malians voted on Sunday in a watershed presidential run-off election expected to usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in the conflict-scarred nation.
Almost seven million voters have a choice between former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse to lead Mali’s recovery following a military coup that ignited an Islamist insurgency and a French-led military intervention.
Both candidates declared themselves confident of victory in the run-off, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round on July 28 achieved an outright majority.
The election, the first since 2007, is crucial for unlocking more than US$4 billion in aid promised after international donors halted contributions in the wake of last year’s coup.
Most polling stations opened on time at 8am, but several visited by AFP in Bamako were almost deserted after heavy rain fell on the capital.
“The rain is trying to ruin our day. I hope it stops, otherwise they will have to extend the voting hours,” said Oumar Toure, one of the few voters who had turned up at a polling station set up in a downtown school.
“In the first round [July 28] at 8am, there were already lots of people [here],” Mariam Kante said in the same centre.
“The rain needs to let us fulfil our civic duty -- the future of Mali is at stake.”
The days leading up to the vote have been largely uneventful, with cities and towns deserted as Malians – over 90 per cent of whom are Muslim – stayed at home to celebrate the Eid festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
The rivals have faced off before, losing the 2002 presidential election to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March last year as he was preparing to end his final term in office.
The return to democratic rule will allow France to withdraw most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to oust al-Qaeda-linked extremists who had occupied the north in the chaos that followed the coup, imposing a brutal regime of sharia law characterised by executions and amputations.
Keita, who is considered the favourite, was more than 20 percentage points ahead of his rival in the first round but Cisse has remained optimistic.
“I am confident because it is not about adding to the votes from the first round. There will be new votes, it is a new election. Everything restarts from zero,” the 63-year-old said.
Cisse had complained about widespread fraud in the first round while more than 400,000 ballots from a turnout of around 3.5 million were declared spoiled.
Mali’s Constitutional Court rejected the allegations, however, confirming that Keita, 68, had won 39.8 per cent, while Cisse attracted a 19.7 per cent share.
Keita has urged voters to hand him a “clear and clean” majority in the runoff to ensure that victory cannot be “stolen”.
“Given the results from the first round, there is a good chance that they would be confirmed in the second,” he said on Friday.
“My first priority would be the reconciliation of the country... After the trauma that it has suffered, a new start is needed.”
Keita claims to have the support of most of the candidates eliminated in the first round and is backed by Mali’s influential religious establishment, while Cisse has been endorsed by Adema, Mali’s largest political party.
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 African soldiers is charged with ensuring security on Sunday and in the months after the election. By the end of the year it will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.
Mali remains the continent’s third-largest gold producer, but its US$10.6 billion economy contracted by 1.2 per cent last year, and widespread poverty has contributed to unrest in the north, with several armed groups vying for control in the vacuum left when the Islamists fled.
The region is home predominantly to lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab populations who accuse the sub-Saharan ethnic groups that live in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.