Mali’s former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and former Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse are seen as front-runners in yesterday’s presidential elections, the first in the West African nation since 2007.
Keita, 68, and Cisse, a former commission chairman of the West African Monetary Union, are among 27 candidates standing for office. International donors deemed the election necessary before they can resume aid to the country. Most of the polling stations closed at 6 p.m. local time, Youssouf Toure, a spokesman for the electoral commission, said by phone.
Voting “has gone well so far,” Louis Michel, head of the European Union observer mission, told reporters in Bamako after polls closed. “I think the vote has been transparent but I would like to meet with the other observers from the EU and with the other observation missions to have a more specific idea.”
Mali, Africa’s third-biggest gold producer, has been gripped by conflict for more than a year after an ethnic-Touareg uprising in the north prompted a group of soldiers to overthrow the government. French and pan-African forces subsequently intervened to restore order after the Touaregs joined Islamist militants in an offensive that almost split the nation in half.
Mali’s electoral commission said this month it would be “extremely difficult” for all 6.9 million eligible voters to cast a ballot. At least half a million residents have fled from the north to the south or to neighboring countries, according to the United Nations. Interim ruler Dioncounda Traore isn’t eligible to stand for election under an accord brokered by international mediators last year.
“These elections are important as many foreign donors want to help Mali and they want a stable government,” Lala Toure, 63, a retired teacher, said at a polling station in Bamako yesterday. “The economic situation is pathetic. Since the crisis started, we are at a stalemate. The business is slow and we hope everything will go back to normal after the election.”
International donors say a vote must be held before they can start providing as much as $4 billion in aid pledged in May.
The election “appears to be seen as a box to be ticked before the political class and international partners can get down to do serious business,” said Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which recommended delaying the election by three months.
A run-off may be held Aug. 11 because the first round likely won’t produce an outright victor, according to a survey this month by the Center for Statistical Studies and Applied Informatics in Bamako, the capital. Of the 5,385 people questioned, 41 percent said they support Boubacar Keita and 20 percent Cisse.
Mali’s $10.6 billion economy contracted 1.2 percent in 2012, according to the International Monetary Fund. It may expand 4.8 percent this year because gold mining hasn’t been affected by the fighting, according to the fund. AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. are among the miners in Mali.
Some of the 21,124 polling stations nationwide didn’t get all the equipment needed and experienced difficulty operating early yesterday. As many as 85 percent of the voting cards were distributed as of July 26, according to Gamer Dicko, head of communications at the Ministry of Territorial Administration.
The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, a group that’s linked to al-Qaeda and is known by its French abbreviation, Mujao, threatened to attack polling stations, government departments, army barracks and the police, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a statement released by the Nouakchott Information Agency of neighboring Mauritania on July 27.
Malian and French troops and UN peacekeepers guarded stations to ensure safety, Modibo Traore, a spokesman for the Malian army, said. Members of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a Touareg rebel group, protested agaisnt the elections in the northern town of Kidal, he said.
“Everything is going fine in terms of security,” Traore said.