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Mali heads to polls for 'fresh start' vote

28 July 2013, 14:55

Bamako - Malians voted on Sunday in a presidential election it is hoped will provide a fresh start for the West African nation after more than a year of turmoil, war and an army coup.

Candidates wound up campaigns promising reconstruction and reconciliation. But underscoring security fears despite a successful French offensive against al Qaeda-linked fighters, an Islamist group threatened to attack polling stations.

Separatist and Islamist rebels swept across the desert north of the former French colony last year shortly after soldiers ousted the president.

Thousands of French troops halted a rebel advance in January and United Nations peacekeepers are deploying to stabilize the broken nation. A successful vote on Sunday would take the gold-producing country another step towards recovery.


"I came to choose a president capable of managing the country," said Mamoutou Samake, 46, an agricultural engineer and the first to vote at a polling centre in the Banankabougou neighborhood of the capital Bamako.

"The priority of the new president must be to reestablish peace and security. The rest will come with time," he said.

Voting was taking place at about 21 000 polling stations across Mali and long queues formed in the dirt courtyards of schools in the bustling, lush riverside capital in the south.

In the northern desert town of Timbuktu, seized by al Qaeda-linked rebels during last year's rebellion, people turned up in large numbers.

There were, however, some minor delays to the official 08:00 GMT opening of polls as election workers awaited the last-minute delivery of voting materials.

Most of the front-runners are established political figures over the last 20 years of Malian politics so there is little likelihood of a radical overhaul.

Two former prime ministers - Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known universally as IBK, and Modibo Sidibe - are expected to be among the top finishers.

Soumaila Cisse, a respected economist, former finance minister and native of the region of Timbuktu, is also among the leading candidates. And relative political newcomer Dramane Dembele, chosen as candidate of Mali's largest party, ADEMA, could appeal to young voters.

A second round will take place on August 11 if no candidate wins over 50 percent of the vote.

In the run-up to the vote, experts had warned that a rushed election might lead to challenges and further crises.

But election officials say they have distributed 85 percent of the ID cards and a free and fair race in a field of 26 men and one women could take place.

Louis Michel, head of the European Union's election observer mission, said he was "positively surprised" by preparations and that the conditions for the vote were acceptable.

"A month ago, there were a lot of doubts. But it has come together. Everyone realizes that this interim government has to end as its inherent fragility and uncertainty has been so costly for Mali," said U.S. Ambassador Mary Beth Leonard.


"I am very satisfied with the general voting conditions. I think that this is the best poll organized since our independence," interim President Dioncounda Traore said after voting in Bamako Saturday morning.

"Democracy is the law of the majority. I ask that all candidates accept the result of the ballot boxes," he added.

Before last year's collapse, Mali, a poor nation straddling the south of the Sahara, had built up a reputation for stability and become Africa's No. 3 gold producer.

Donors who slashed aid after the coup have promised more than 3 billion euros in reconstruction assistance after the election.

The new president will have to oversee peace talks with separatist Tuareg rebels who have agreed to allow the vote to take place in areas they operate in but have yet to lay down their arms.

France is hoping a successful vote will allow it to scale down its military presence in Mali from around 3 000 troops currently. A 12 600-strong U.N. mission is rolling out.

While there have been few counter-attacks by Islamists since they were scattered from their northern strongholds, MUJWA, one of the groups that occupied Mali's north last year, on Saturday threatened to attack polling stations.

"Places of the so-called election will be a target for the strikes of the Mujaahideen," Mauritania's Nouakchoute News Agency quoted the group as saying in a statement.

The group also warned what it called the Muslims of Mali against taking part in the elections and urged them to stay away.

- Reuters

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