Malian voters braved heavy rain on Sunday to vote in the crucial second round of the country’s presidential election – the first since last year’s military coup - amid concerns that the weather could badly affect voter turnout.
Almost seven million eligible voters can choose between former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse to lead Mali's recovery following a military coup last year, which triggered an Islamist insurgency and a French-led military intervention.
But officials voiced concerns that the weather could badly affect voter turnout as polling stations in the capital Bamako reported 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.
Several polling stations visited by AFP in Bamako were almost deserted as voting began at 8:00 am (0800 GMT), in marked contrast to the large numbers gathered before the first round vote opened on July 28.
"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 a polling station in a city centre school.
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. "At the moment, it's a disaster," said an election commission delegate at another Bamako voting centre, telling AFP numbers were significantly down on the 300 people who had turned up by the same point on July 28.
"Today there are not even 20 and we really hope the rain will stop and people will come to vote," he said.
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 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.
Complaints of fraud
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.
Date created : 2013-08-11