Earlier this year a coup, separatist rebellion and an Islamic insurgency unraveled one of West Africa's most stable democracies, prompting a French military intervention.
The presidential runoff vote between former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and former finance minister Soumaila Cisse is aimed at unlocking about $4-billion in aid that has been promised to help Mali recover. The funds, though, are contingent on a democratically elected government being in place.
Keita, known by his initials "IBK," has run on a campaign of restoring Mali's honour after a French-led military operation forced the jihadists into the desert earlier this year and paved the way for the Malian military to return to the northern cities it had fled from in the wake of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion.
He 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. "My first priority would be the reconciliation of the country," Keita said Friday. "After the trauma that it has suffered, a new start is needed."
Turnout in the first round of voting was nearly 50%, though in the northern provincial capital of Kidal where rebel flags still fly, it was a mere 12%. Separatist sentiment there remains high, though some within the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad had endorsed Keita because of his promise to hold a national dialogue on the crisis there.
Heavy rains kept many polling stations from opening on time on Sunday in the capital of Bamako. "We think that around 10am or 11am the voters will come out. There's a possibility the governor of Bamako will extend the polling stations' closing hours if he deems it necessary," said Issaga Kampo, vice president of the National Independent Electoral Commission.
During the first round of voting, technical glitches kept many from casting ballots. Voters showed up at polling stations only to find their names were not on the list. Others encountered difficulties obtaining their voting cards ahead of the July 28 first-round ballot. The presidential election is the first since the separatist Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in early 2012 sparked anger within the military and led to a coup in March 2012 that overthrew longtime President Amadou Toumani Toure.
The chaotic aftermath allowed those separatists, and later Islamic extremists linked to al-Qaeda, to grab control of an area the size of France. Tens of thousands of northerners poured into the southern capital of this mostly moderate Muslim nation to flee the violence and harsh Islamic law that meted out punishments such as amputations for alleged theft and whippings to women who went out in public without their heads covered.
Many are still here and nearly 200 000 remain in neighboring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger. The UN refugee agency said initial estimates indicated only about 1 220 of them voted in the first round, though election materials also were being flown in for the second round poll.
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. The country of more than 14-million remains the continent's third-largest gold producer, but its $10.6-billion economy contracted by 1.2% 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. In the restive northern districts of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, polling began in an atmosphere of calm, with voters reporting a strong turnout. – Sapa-AFP