Voters are choosing on Sunday who should lead Mali out of turmoil after a coup, separatist rebellion and an Islamic insurgency unravelled one of West Africa’s most stable democracies, prompting a French military intervention earlier this year.
The presidential runoff vote between former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and former Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse is aimed at unlocking some $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.
Mr. 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 in the wake of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion.
Turnout in the first round of voting was nearly 50 percent, though in the northern provincial capital of Kidal where rebel flags still fly, it was a mere 12 percent. 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.
“We think that around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., 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 March 2012 coup 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 like amputations for alleged theft and whippings to women who went in public without their heads covered. Many are still here, and nearly 200,000 remain in neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The U.N. 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.