Mali’s presidential front-runner wrapped up his campaign on Friday with a promise to restore peace to the West African country scarred by a coup and an Islamist uprising that triggered French military intervention.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 68, a Malian former prime minister with a reputation for toughness, won last month’s first-round ballot with nearly 40 percent of the vote. He faces ex-Malian minister of finance Soumaila Cisse in today’s runoff.
Drawing wide support with a pledge to impose order after a March military coup last year plunged Mali into chaos, Keita has secured the endorsement of 22 of the 25 losing first-round candidates.
Cisse, 63, president of the West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA), took just 19 percent of the first-round vote with promises to improve education, create jobs and reform the army.
Once seen as a model for democracy in turbulent West Africa, Mali imploded last year when Islamist rebels took advantage of the coup to seize control of the vast desert north, where they imposed a harsh version of Sharia, Islamic law.
France intervened militarily in January to destroy the Islamist enclave, which it said threatened the West. Now Paris is looking to pull out most of its remaining 3,000 troops, despite ongoing tensions with Tuareg separatists in northern Mali after a ceasefire last month.
“My first priority, will be to pursue ... a lasting peace deal,” Keita, universally known by his initials IBK, told French news channel France 24. “That will be a real peace, not a false one.”
Today’s election should unlock about US$4 billion in aid and allow France to hand responsibility for maintaining security to a 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping mission being deployed.
With the end of campaigning coinciding with the Eid al-Fitr festival to mark the end of Ramadan, both candidates canceled their main political rallies.
Supporters of both camps instead drove around the waterlogged streets of Bamako — Keita’s stronghold — honking car and motorcycle horns and waving posters. In a carnival atmosphere, each side held concerts in the center of the riverside capital.
“IBK is someone who has a firm hand and we need that right now in Mali,” said Saidou Salif Traore, 33, a university teacher. “He is the only one who saw these problems coming.”
Keita opposed a 2006 peace deal with Tuareg separatists that demilitarized much of northern Mali. He was a critic of the government of former Malian president Amadou Toumani Toure, who was ousted amid widespread frustration over its corruption and passivity toward the Tuareg revolt. ‘
Keita has captured the popular mood by avoiding outspoken criticism of the coup leaders, earning the tacit blessing of the military. He has also successfully courted Mali’s powerful Islamic clerics, several of whom have endorsed him.
Critics say Cisse, who condemned the coup, defends a corrupt political class that dragged Mali into the current crisis by ignoring rising frustration at poverty. The majority of Mali’s 16 million people live on less than US$1.25 a day.
Cisse rejects the claim, saying he is a defender of democracy. After challenging the result of the July 28 election, alleging systemic fraud, he has vowed to accept the outcome of the second round.
“I call on you all to vote on Sunday. Trickery will not triumph,” Cisse told cheering supporters at a rally.