A woman votes during the second round of presidential elections in
Bamako August 11, 2013. Malians vote …
Malians voted in a high stakes presidential runoff on Sunday with former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita tipped to claim the difficult job of stabilizing the West African nation after more than a year of turmoil, war and an army coup.
The winner of the vote will be able to draw on more than $4 billion in foreign aid promised to rebuild the country after a French-led military intervention in January routed al Qaeda-linked rebels occupying the desert north.He must also tackle deep-rooted corruption and forge a lasting peace with northern Tuaregs after decades of sporadic uprisings, problems that led to the overthrow of president Amadou Toumani Toure in the March 2012 coup and allowed Islamists to seize the northern two-thirds of the country.
"Whatever the decision of the ballot box, Mali has already won," Keita, 68, told reporters after voting in the capital Bamako.
"We've come together to rebuild a new Mali and give it a new destiny," said Keita, who is opposed by Soumaila Cisse, 63, a technocrat from northern Mali who headed the West African monetary union (UEMOA).
An announcement of final results is expected in two or three days, and the constitutional court has until Friday to certify them.
A trickle of people came out to vote in heavy rains when polling stations in Bamako opened at 8 am (0800 GMT). But the turnout picked up as the weather cleared.
"The Malian people are tired. Our suffering has lasted long enough. Let God grant victory to the candidate who can bring us happiness again," 35-year-old housewife Aminata Traore said after voting in Bamako's Badalabougou neighborhood.
Keita's promises to impose order and restore the honor of a nation once seen as a rare bastion of democracy and stability in a troubled region have struck a chord with voters and won him nearly 40 percent of ballots cast in the July 28 first round.
Twenty-two of the 25 losing first-round candidates have thrown their weight behind Keita, known as IBK, a man who earned a reputation for firmness in crushing student protests and strikes when he was prime minister in the 1990s.
Cisse, a former finance minister and vocal critic of the military junta that seized power last year, took 19 percent of the first-round vote with pledges to improve education, create jobs and reform the army.
"I'm proud of our people who have, in such a short time, put us on a path back to the republic and to democracy," he said.
HOPE FOR CHANGE
A record 49 percent of Mali's 6.8 million registered voters turned out to cast their ballots in the first round of the election, which despite concerns that preparations had been rushed received a clean bill of health from observers.
Malians voted in some 21,000 polling stations across the landlocked nation, from the forested south, home to 90 percent of Mali's 16 million people, to the northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao, where Islamists imposed sharia law.
Polling stations in the capital were packed again on Sunday.
"The crowds are palpable. They are bigger than for the first round," said Bouille Dembele, a poll worker in the Banankabougou neighborhood.
Many Malians hope the election can change a system of "consensus politics" under which Toure seduced political opponents with government positions and failed to undertake reforms, discrediting his government in the eyes of voters.
"I think we will see a change," said Chris Fomunyoh, senior associate for Africa at the National Democratic Institute in Washington. "The personality differences between the candidates are so great that whoever loses will create a real opposition."
Keita has captured the popular mood by avoiding outspoken criticism of the coup leaders who toppled Toure, earning the tacit blessing of the military. He has also successfully courted Mali's powerful Islamic clerics, some of whom have endorsed him.
Critics say Cisse, who condemned the coup, supports the corrupt political class, but he rejects the claim, saying he is a defender of democracy. After challenging the result of the July 28 election, alleging fraud, he promised to accept the second round's outcome.
PEACE IN THE NORTH
World powers have been pushing for the vote to be held to replace the weak interim administration that has led the country since the military junta agreed to hand over power to a civilian transitional administration in April 2012.
Former colonial power France is pulling out its 3,000 troops and hands responsibility for security to a 12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission which is gradually deploying.
Tuareg rebels, once allied with Islamist fighters scattered by the French-led operation, remain armed but allowed voting to take place after Bamako agreed to discuss their demands of autonomy for the sparsely populated homeland they call Azawad.
"This election can bring peace if there is a president who takes negotiations seriously," said Abarkan Ag Abzaik, mayor of Kidal where pro-independence graffiti covers walls and the red, yellow, black and green flag of Azawad is visible everywhere.
Rebel and government delegations are due to meet within 60 days of the vote under the terms of the ceasefire agreement.
Tuareg fighters from the pro-independence MNLA have threatened to return to war if their demands are not taken seriously, but granting concessions to the rebels would be unpopular in the south.
"I won't wait two months to reconcile with the north," Keita said on Sunday.
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Editing by Joe Bavier, David Stamp and Sonya Hepinstall)