08/09/2013 02:12 GMT
by Stephane Barbier
BAMAKO, August 9, 2013 (AFP) - Two veterans of Malian politics face off Sunday in the second round of a presidential election intended to turn the page on months of unrest after a coup, Islamist insurgency and French military intervention.
The vote, the first since 2007, is seen as critical to unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised after international donors halted contributions in the wake of the military mutiny in March last year.
Former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse go into the run-off after none of the 27 candidates achieved an outright majority in the first round on July 28.
Keita, who is considered the frontrunner, ran a nationalist campaign under the slogan "For Mali's honour", promising to restore the country's dignity after the humiliation of having to call for France's help to prevent the country from breaking up.
With the official campaign period ending on Friday, both candidates have been horse-trading behind the scenes to get the crucial backing of the 25 candidates eliminated in the first round, whose support accounted for more than a quarter of the vote.
Keita, widely known as IBK, claims to have the support of most of the also-rans and is backed by Mali's influential religious establishment, but Cisse has been endorsed by Adema, Mali's largest political party, which can mobilise tens of thousands of members.
In his first public comments since winning a first round marred by accusations of fraud, Keita urged voters on Sunday to hand him a "clear and clean" majority in the run-off to ensure victory couldn't be "stolen".
Keita, 68, finished more than 20 percentage points ahead of 63-year-old Cisse but the runner-up complained about widespread ballot-stuffing 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.
"By giving me about 40 percent of the vote and a wide lead over the other candidates, the Malian people have expressed a clear first choice," Keita said in a speech at his campaign headquarters in the capital Bamako.
"On August 11, I ask you to amplify your vote, I ask you to give me a clear and clean majority, a majority beyond dispute which will give me the power to lead the national recovery to which you aspire."
Keita and Cisse faced off once before in the 2002 presidential election, both losing 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, extremists who imposed a brutal version of shariah law in the north and destroyed historic buildings and artifacts in the fabled desert city of Timbuktu.
When the Islamists pushed south toward Bamako in January, French President Francois Hollande deployed more than 4,000 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 on Sunday the movement would resume fighting if no negotiated solution were reached to grant autonomy to the northern homeland they call Azawad.
"We are going to make a proposal... for an autonomy agreement with the central government in Bamako," Moussa Ag Assarid told a forum organised by a separatist Corsican party on the French island.
"We will continue our struggle democratically but we will take up arms again if we have to," he added.
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.
The agreement sealed in neighbouring Burkina Faso provides for talks on Azawad's autonomy to start between the rebels and the new administration 60 days after a cabinet is formed.
Around 100 MNLA supporters demonstrated on Tuesday in Kidal to demand the release of fighters detained in Bamako, in line with another provision in the deal.
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.
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