Malians voted yesterday in a watershed presidential run-off election expected to usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in the conflict-scarred nation.
Almost 7 million voters have a choice between former Malian prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-Malian minister of finance Soumaila Cisse to lead the country’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 foreign reporters in Bamako were almost deserted after heavy rain fell on the capital.
The days leading up to the vote have been largely uneventful, with cities and towns deserted as Malians — more than 90 percent of whom are Muslim — stayed at home to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr festival marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The rivals have faced off before, losing the 2002 election to former Malian president 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 Islamist extremists who had occupied the north in the chaos that followed the coup, imposing a brutal regime of Shariah Islamic law characterized by executions and amputations.
Keita, who is considered the favorite, 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 told reporters.
Cisse had complained about widespread fraud in the first round, when more than 400,000 ballots from a turnout of about 3.5 million were declared spoiled.
However, the Malian Constitutional Court rejected the allegations, confirming that Keita, 68, had won 39.8 percent, while Cisse attracted a 19.7 percent 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 was charged with ensuring security yesterday 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.