After war and two elections, Mali has a president

Former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita wins runoff, paving the way for $4 billion in aid. 

By , Correspondent

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    Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, seen here at a campaign rally last month in Bamako, has won Mali’s presidency. His opponent, Soumaila Cisse, conceded defeat Monday night before official results were announced. Mr. Cisse went to Mr. Keita's home to congratulate him on his victory, according to spokesmen for both candidates.
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Malians weary of war and two rounds of elections sighed with relief Tuesday night when it was announced early that they had a president. The former finance minister, Soumaila Cisse, conceded defeat to the former prime minister, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, despite some qualms. 

Mr. Cisse had charged voter irregularity in the hours after Sunday’s runoff vote. But Mr. Keita’s lead was so great in the initial polling that he decided not to contest the outcome and instead visited the winner’s home last evening -- and later today announced that he was creating Mali's first serious opposition party. 

That now leaves the West African country with Keita as president, a tough veteran and member of the political elite who is known in Mali as “IBK.”

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Keita is regarded as a wily negotiator, a friend of the military, and the choice of the French, the former colonial power, whose troops entered Mali in January to stop the advance of radical Islamist forces at the invitation of the acting Mali government.

Keita was the favorite to win after scoring more than twice the percentage of votes, 40 percent, than did Cisse, who came in at 19 percent. Under Mali election rules (as in France), a runoff is held unless one candidate wins an outright majority. 

Last evening, French President François Hollande phoned Keita to congratulate him.

The clear victory also now opens the path for some $4 billion in aid that was tied by donor nations to the completion of fair elections.

A US State Department spokesperson said the elections meant the US government would begin to “normalize our foreign assistance to Mali,” along with more than 100 other states that attended a pledge meeting in May. 

As the Monitor reported on Monday: 

Ballot-counting is under way in Mali after voters took to the polls Sunday in the final round of presidential elections that are widely seen as a first step to rebuilding the war-torn West African nation.

Mali forged ahead July 28 with a first round of elections despite calls for a delay by some local politicians and several prominent international NGOs that said it was too early. In January Mali saw a French-led war against Islamic radicals that itself followed a military coup last year. 

The July vote saw a record turnout but not an outright majority winner, setting the stage for a runoff between former prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and ex-finance minister Soumalia Cissé.

Yesterday's vote was orderly and peaceful. In the morning, Malians in Bamako braved torrential downpours in the early morning to cast their votes. In muddy courtyards throughout the city, long lines seemed to favor male voters but represented a mix of Mali’s diverse population.

Most women, many with a child in tow, wore new, colorful wax-print outfits purchased for the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Other women dressed in all black with their faces veiled by a niqab, a growing trend among women in some neighborhoods. Businessmen in suits stood next to men in flowing traditional robes, rubbing elbows with youth in skinny jeans and fashionably tight t-shirts.

Results are expected to be finalized as early as Wednesday.  

Sunday’s vote capped off a lethargic week of campaigning, which featured few events and a cancelled debate between the two candidates.

On Friday, Mr. Cissé held his final rally of the campaign season in the nouveau riche neighborhood of ACI 2000. Despite musical acts and appearances by local celebrities, the concert drew under 2,000 people, with campaign organizers desperately urging the crowd to chant Cissé’s nickname, “Soumi Champion.”

Mr. Keita, known locally by his initials, IBK, took a subdued approach to the final week of the campaign, opting to stay largely out of the public eye. Keita’s supporters also organized a concert in the center of town on Friday evening, but the event never quite materialized.

Mali, a poor, landlocked country once called a model of democracy, imploded last year when a coup in Bamako paved the way for a mosaic of rebel groups to capture a vast desert expanse roughly the size of Texas.

Sunday’s vote comes just six months after France intervened to halt an ambitious rebel push southward and to liberate northern Mali from Islamist rebels - some with links to Al Qaeda - who had spent the better part of a year consolidating control over the country’s north.

The international community, particularly the US and France, had been calling for elections as a condition to releasing nearly $4 billion in pledged aid and assistance.

Though July’s first round of vote saw Malians participate in record numbers - a 48 percent turnout that shattered Mali’s previous high of 38 percent – election observers noted that Sunday’s vote is likely to have a lower yield.

But those who did vote expressed optimism.

“This is a very important day,” said Ibrahim Traoré, a university student who voted for Keita, “everyone here voted for IBK. Everyone knows he is the man to restore our dignity and our honor,” Mr. Traoré continued, borrowing terms that featured prominently in Keita’s campaign advertising.

Thus far, election observers from the African Union, European Union, and a network of Malian organizations have confirmed that the vote took place without major incident. However, the Cissé campaign took to Twitter in the early afternoon to voice accusations of vote-rigging and fraud.

Early indicators suggest that IBK is likely to win by a comfortable margin, though official results are not expected until midweek.

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