08/10/2013 14:34 GMT
by Stephane Barbier
BAMAKO, August 10, 2013 (AFP) - 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 that 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 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 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 Cisse, saying he preferred 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.
"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 fraud 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, while Cisse attracted a 19.7 percent share.
Keita has urged voters to hand him a "clear and clean" majority in the runoff to ensure victory cannot 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 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 several Islamist groups.
The MNLA was then sidelined by its one-time allies, extremists who imposed a brutal version of Islamic shariah law in the region 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 them back into the country's mountains and vast desert hinterland.
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 of marginalising them.
The MNLA and another Tuareg group, the High Council for the Unity of Azawad, reached a deal with the government in June that allowed Malian troops to enter the northern rebel bastion of Kidal ahead of the July 28 polls.
The MNLA has made clear, however, that it will take up arms against the government again if no negotiated solution is reached to grant autonomy to the northern homeland they call Azawad.
The group released a statement late on Friday with the HCUA and the Arab Movement of Azawad announcing an end to an often violent struggle between the three factions for control of the region.
The statement, sent to AFP from Nouakchott, the capital of neighbouring Mauritania, pledged to "open a new page in the history of Azawad based on tolerance and overcoming past differences".
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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