08/12/2013 01:42 GMT
by Stephane Barbier
BAMAKO, August 12, 2013 (AFP) - Malians on Monday awaited the outcome of a presidential election run-off they hope will usher in a new dawn of stability following a military coup which upended one of the region's most stable democracies.
An electorate of almost seven million had been asked Sunday to choose between former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse to lead Mali's recovery, following last year's coup that ignited an Islamist insurgency and a French-led military intervention.
The election, the first since 2007, was crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised after international donors halted contributions in the wake of the coup.
The European Union's election observation mission was to present a report on turnout and voting conditions on Monday.
On Sunday, torrential rain affected early voting, with fewer polling stations opening on time than in the first round, when a turnout of 48.9 percent was seen as a key sign that the electoral process would be viewed as credible.
The rain stopped by lunchtime and AFP reporters in the capital Bamako witnessed a steady stream of voters joining queues to cast their ballots in the afternoon, but some polling station managers said their numbers were 50 percent down on the first round.
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 in Bamako and in 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 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 was 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. 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 took place in an atmosphere of calm, with reports of stronger voter turnout.
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