Mali voted on Sunday for a new president in a bid to usher in peace and stability in the first election since a military coup helped plunge the country into chaos.
Voters chose from 27 candidates to lead the nation from the crisis ignited by last year’s mutiny, which allowed Islamists to seize the vast desert north before a French-led military intervention dislodged them earlier this year.
Preliminary results collated by journalists in polling stations after the end of voting suggested that former Malian prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had taken a clear early lead.
The unofficial projection, based on the accounts of reporters watching counts across the country, indicates that Keita, 69, could even cause an upset and win the first round outright.
His supporters were already celebrating in the capital, Bamako, outside his party headquarters, as news of his apparent lead was broadcast on local radio.
French President Francois Hollande welcomed the smooth running of the vote, “marked by a good turnout and an absence of any major incident.”
Voting stations opened at 8am under heavy security.
A day earlier, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the main armed groups in the Islamic Maghreb, had threatened to “strike” polling stations. However, there were no reports of serious incidents.
After casting his ballot in Bamako, Malian acting president Dioncounda Traore, who was not running in the election, called on all candidates to respect the outcome.
“I am very satisfied with the general conditions in terms of the organization of the elections,” he said.
The APEM Network, an independent Malian organization that deployed 2,100 observers across the nation, reported a strong turnout among the country’s electorate of almost 7 million.
Louis Michel, chief of the EU election observation mission, told reporters after voting ended: “Overall everything went well. There was the enthusiasm among voters.”
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the peaceful conditions in which voting had taken place.
In a polling station at a school in Bamako, hundreds of voters lined up for more than an hour to cast their ballots.
“We are tired of bad governance. I’d urge the candidates to accept the results of our vote,” 56-year-old machine operator Kalifa Traore said.
An official announcement on the first-round result is not expected until Friday, but if no candidate wins an overall majority, then a second round runoff between the top two contenders will be held on Aug. 11.