Mali on eve of presidential election

10th August 2013, Comments 0 comments

Mali's presidential hopefuls entered a final day of behind-the-scenes preparations Saturday for a crunch election intended to turn the page on a political crisis following a coup, which led to an Islamist insurgency and French military intervention.

Campaigning wrapped up Friday with former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse both saying they were confident of victory in Sunday's runoff, called after none of the 27 candidates achieved an outright majority in the first-round vote on July 28.

The election, the first since 2007, is crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised after international donors halted contributions in the wake of a military mutiny in March last year.

The days leading up to the second-round vote have been largely uneventful, with cities and towns deserted as Malians -- over 90 percent of whom are Muslim -- stayed at home to celebrate the Eid festival marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Keita, who is considered the favourite, has refused to participate in a television debate offered by his rival Cisse, saying he prefered to spend his time meeting voters.

The 68-year-old was more than 20 percentage points ahead of his rival in the first round, but Cisse has remained optimistic about his presidential bid.

"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 AFP.

Cisse had complained about widespread ballot-stuffing in the first round while more than 400,000 ballots from a turnout of 3.5 million were declared spoiled.

Mali's Constitutional Court rejected the allegations, however, confirming Keita had won 39.8 percent of the vote, while Cisse had garnered 19.7 percent.

Keita has urged voters to hand him a "clear and clean" majority in the runoff to ensure victory couldn't 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, widely known as IBK, 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.

The rivals both lost the 2002 presidential election to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown in the March 2012 military coup led by Captain Amadou Sanogo.

The chaos following the mutiny opened the way for the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to seize the towns and cities of Mali's vast northern desert with the help of allied Islamist groups.

The MNLA was then sidelined by its one-time allies, Islamist extremists who imposed a brutal version of shariah law in the north and destroyed historic buildings and artifacts in the desert city of Timbuktu.

When the Islamists pushed south toward Bamako in January, France deployed troops who forced the militants back into the country's mountains and desert.

Mali remains the continent's third-largest gold producer but its $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.2 percent last year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The impoverished north is home predominantly to lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab populations who accuse the sub-Saharan ethnic groups that live in the more prosperous south -- including Bamako -- of marginalising them.

The MNLA's top representative in Europe said the movement would resume fighting on Sunday if no negotiated solution was reached to grant autonomy to the northern homeland they call Azawad.

The MNLA and the authorities in Bamako reached a deal in June that allowed Malian troops to enter the northern rebel bastion of Kidal ahead of the July 28 presidential vote.

A 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping operation took over from African-led forces in Mali on July 1, while France expects to keep 1,000 troops inside the country until the end of the year.

© 2013 AFP

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