Bamako - 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
Preliminary results collated by journalists in polling
stations after the end of voting suggested that former premier 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
Voting stations opened at 08:00 under heavy security.
A day earlier, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West
Africa (MUJAO), one of the main armed groups linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic
Maghreb (AQIM), had threatened to "strike" polling stations. There
were no reports of serious incidents, however.
After casting his ballot in Bamako, 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 organisation of the elections," he said.
The APEM Network, an independent Malian organisation that
deployed 2,100 observers across the nation, reported a strong turn-out among
the country's electorate of almost seven million.
Louis Michel, chief of the European Union election
observation mission, told reporters after voting ended: "Overall
everything went well. There was the enthusiasm among voters".
A spokesperson 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 queued 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," said machine operator
Kalifa Traore, 56.
'Mali will be the
Voting in the restive north also passed off peacefully.
In Gao, northern Mali's largest city, dozens lined up to
vote in a school near Independence Square. During the Islamist occupation it
had been renamed "Sharia Square".
In the northern desert town of Timbuktu, polls went ahead
after initial problems with organisation, with many unable to find their names
on voting lists.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls had been focused on
Kidal. It was occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire
accord allowed the Malian army to provide security earlier this month.
Ethnic clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans in the
run-up to the election left four people dead.
And gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the
Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) kidnapped five polling officials 200km north of
The ballot is the first since the military mutiny in March
last year that toppled democratically-elected president Amadou Toumani Toure.
The ensuing confusion helped the MNLA, MUJAO and other
groups allied with al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
A UN peacekeeping force was deployed to Mali earlier this
month. The deployment, which will reach 12 600 by the end of the year, allows
France to start withdrawing most of its 4 500 troops, who arrived there in
January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards Bamako.
Among the candidates, Keita is seen as the frontrunner. His
main rival is thought to be Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission
of the West African Monetary Union.
"This election will help us forget the nightmare,"
Keita said after voting. "We will have a head of state elected without
ambiguity," he continued, adding that he felt confident of success.
Cisse urged Malians to "turn the page" and
"restore peace to republican institutions".
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 run-off between the top two contenders will be held on 11 August.