Campaigning wraps up in Mali's watershed elections
The campaign for Mali's presidential election wrapped up Friday, two days ahead of a vote seen as vital for a return to peace in a country traumatised by political chaos and war.
Voters will have a choice of 27 candidates as they go to the polls on Sunday for the first time since a separatist uprising led to a coup and then a sweeping Islamist offensive last year which upended one of the region's most stable democracies.
The transitional government declared Friday a public holiday to allow as many Malians as possible to collect their voter cards, with the latest official figures showing 85 per cent had been distributed to the electorate of almost seven million.
The three-week campaign has played out without major incident, although renewed violence in the north last week cast doubt over Mali's readiness to deliver a safe election and a result that would be accepted by its disparate population.
Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observation mission, said conditions had been met for a credible first round, which will be followed by a run-off on August 11 if no majority winner emerges on Sunday.
"I believe that these elections can take place in a context and in conditions that are acceptable and do not allow for a distortion or an abuse of the result," he told reporters in the capital Bamako.
"I really think the personality who emerges during this election will have more than enough legitimacy."
One hundred EU observers will visit five of the eight administrative regions of Mali on Sunday but will not go to the restive northern provinces of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, where tensions remain following a nine-month occupation by armed Islamists last year.
The credibility of polling in the three regions — which make up almost two-thirds of Mali — will be seen as hugely symbolic, although in reality they are home to just 10 per cent of the population of 15 million and cannot significantly influence the outcome.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army in earlier this month to provide security.
Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans a week ago left four people dead while five polling officials were kidnapped in Tessalit, 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Kidal, by gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The ballot will be the first since a coup in March last year that toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure and created an opening that allowed the MNLA and groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 west African soldiers into its ranks is charged with ensuring security during and after the election, and will grow to 11,200 troops, plus 1,400 police, by the end of the year.
The deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards the capital, Bamako, from their northern strongholds.
France plans to have just 1,000 troops on the ground before the end of 2013 and has been pushing for a quick election in the hopes of restoring order to the country, under the control of an interim government since the coup.
The list of candidates to Mali's next president features four former prime ministers and an array of political heavyweights — but just one woman.
Haidara Aichata Cisse, a legislator for a constituency near the northern city of Gao, will go head-to-head with 26 men, including past premiers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Cheick Modibo Diarra, Modibo Sidibe and Soumana Sacko.
Keita, prime minister from 1994 to 2000 and president of the National Assembly for five years from 2002, is seen as the main frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union.
"I have rarely felt such a fusion with the people of Mali, I have rarely felt such a communion, I have rarely seen rising in me such fervour," Keita said Thursday in an interview with AFP.