This Article is From Aug 11, 2013

Former Prime Minister favourite for president as Malians vote to end crisis

Former Prime Minister favourite for president as Malians vote to end crisis

Presidential frontrunner Ibrahim Boubacar Keita casts his vote (AP)

Bamako: Former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was the favourite to win a presidential election on Sunday that Malians hope will restore stability in a country torn apart by last year's coup and Islamist insurgency.

The winner of the run-off ballot will oversee more than $4 billion in foreign aid promised to rebuild the West African nation, after France sent thousands of troops in January to break the grip of Al Qaeda-linked rebels over its desert north.

He must also tackle deep-rooted corruption and forge a lasting peace with northern Tuaregs after decades of sporadic uprisings, issues that combined to trigger the ousting of former President Amadou Toumani Toure in a March 2012 coup and allowed Islamists to seize the northern two-thirds of Mali.

Braving a heavy downpour, dozens of voters lined up in front of the Mamadou Guindo school in the riverside capital Bamako's Badalabougou district to wait for the polling station to open.

"It's my duty to vote," said 25-year-old student Moussa Sidibe, the first to cast a ballot when voting began at 8 a.m. (0800 GMT).

"I am hoping that the new president will make the problems of education, youth employment and healthcare a priority," he said.

Voting is taking place at some 21,000 polling stations across the landlocked nation from the forested south, home to some 90 per cent of Mali's 16 million people, to the northern cities of Timbuktu and Gao, where Islamists imposed sharia law.

Keita is the frontrunner after winning nearly 40 per cent of the July 28 first-round vote with pledges to impose order and restore the honour of the once-proud nation, which had been regarded as a bulwark of stability in a turbulent region.

Twenty-two of the 25 losing first-round candidates have since thrown their weight behind Keita, 68, 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.

His rival Soumaila Cisse, 63, a technocrat from northern Mali who headed the West African monetary union (UEMOA), took 19 per cent of the first-round vote with pledges to improve education, create jobs and reform the army.

Despite being Africa's No 3 gold producer, Mali - twice the size of France - is one of the world's poorest and least developed nations.

"I will vote for IBK," said Tidjane Sylla, 28, a trader in the main market in Bamako, which is a stronghold of support for Keita. "He is a man of his word. When he says no, it means no.

Results due mid-week

Final results are expected towards the middle of next week.

Former colonial power France has pushed for quick elections as it pulls out its 3,000 troops and hands responsibility for security to a gradually deploying, 12,600-strong UN peacekeeping mission.

Some observers had warned that rushing to elections might lead to problems but EU election observers gave the first round a clean bill of health. Some 49 per cent of the 6.8 million registered voters cast a ballot - a record for Mali.

Voting cards and ballots have also been distributed in refugee camps in neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, home to some 170,000 Malians.

Many in Mali 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 vowed to accept the second round's outcome.

© Thomson Reuters 2013