08/11/2013 15:11 GMT
by Stephane Barbier
BAMAKO, August 11, 2013 (AFP) - Malians voted Sunday in a presidential election run-off expected to usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in the conflict-scarred nation.
An electorate of almost seven million was urged to choose between former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse to lead Mali's recovery following a military coup that ignited an Islamist insurgency and a French-led military intervention.
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 last year's coup.
Torrential rain hit early turnout, however, with many polling stations in the capital Bamako reporting smaller numbers than during the first round, when a turnout of nearly 50 percent was seen as a key sign that the electoral process would be viewed as credible.
The rain had stopped by lunchtime and AFP reporters across the capital witnessed a steady stream of voters heading to polling booths.
A network of some 2,000 independent Malian observers issued a statement welcoming the smooth running of the poll but it noted that fewer voting booths were able to open on time due to the rain in Bamako and the southern towns of Koulikoro and Kayes.
"The rain is trying to ruin our day. I hope it stops, otherwise they will have to extend the voting hours," said Oumar Toure, one of the few voters who had turned up at the opening of a polling station in a city centre school.
Both Keita and Cisse have declared themselves confident of victory in the run-off, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round achieved an outright majority.
The two men separately appealed for calm among the population in Mali's post-election recovery period after casting their ballots in Bamako.
The rivals have faced off before, losing the 2002 presidential election to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March last year as he was preparing to end his final term in office.
The return to democratic rule will allow France to withdraw most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to oust Al Qaeda-linked extremists who had occupied the north in the chaos that followed the coup, imposing a brutal regime of sharia law characterised by executions and amputations.
Keita, 68, who is considered the favourite, was more than 20 percentage points ahead of his rival in the first round.
Cisse, 63, had complained about widespread fraud in the first round while more than 400,000 ballots from a turnout of around 3.5 million were declared spoiled.
Mali's Constitutional Court rejected the fraud allegations, however, confirming that Keita had won 39.8 percent, while Cisse attracted a 19.7 percent share.
Keita 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.
"My first priority would be the reconciliation of the country," Keita said Friday. "After the trauma that it has suffered, a new start is needed."
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 African soldiers is charged with ensuring security on Sunday and in the months after the election. By the end of the year it will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.
The country of more than 14 million remains the continent's third-largest gold producer, but its $10.6 billion economy contracted by 1.2 percent last year, and widespread poverty has contributed to unrest in the north, with several armed groups vying for control in the vacuum left when the Islamists fled.
The region is home predominantly to lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab populations who accuse the sub-Saharan ethnic groups that live in the more populous and prosperous south of marginalising them.
In the northern districts of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal, polling began in an atmosphere of calm, with reports of strong voter turnout.
© 1994-2013 Agence France-Presse