Malians will go to the polls Sunday in their millions for a president expected to usher in a new era of peace and democracy in the first election since a military coup upended one of the region’s most stable democracies.
Almost seven million voters have a choice between former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse to lead the nation from a crisis which allowed Islamists last year to seize Mali’s vast desert north before they were dislodged by a French-led military intervention.
Both declared themselves confident of victory in the runoff, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round on July 28 achieved an outright majority.
The election, the first since 2007, is crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion in aid promised after international donor’s halted contributions in the wake of last year’s coup.
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.
The rivals have faced off before, losing the 2002 presidential election to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March 2012 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 which followed the coup, imposing a brutal regime of sharia law characterized by executions and amputations.
Keita, who is considered the favorite, 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 that Keita, 68, 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 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.
A U.N. 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.
Mali remains the continent’s third-largest gold producer but its $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.2 percent last year, and widespread poverty has contributed to unrest in the north, with several 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 prosperous south of marginalizing them.