AFTER decades of dictatorship, the semi-desert West African Republic of Mali and its 8 million people are preparing for the country's first free elections.
Following months of strikes and demonstrations against the 23-year dictatorial rule of President Moussa Traore, the military last March seized control to stop killings that occurred during four days of brutal repression by government security forces.
An estimated 150 to 300 persons, mostly civilians, died in the four days of clashes.
Now, nearly a year later, Lt. Col. Amadou Toumani Toure, the Army officer who led the takeover, says he is ready to hand over power to the winners of Mali's first democratic elections in its 31 years of independence. National Assembly elections are scheduled for Feb. 23, with more than 1,100 candidates from 21 parties running for 116 seats.
Presidential elections are expected to follow the legislative elections this spring, and presidential candidates from different parties already are stumping for votes, shaking hands, listening to voters' concerns, and submitting to endless questions.
Candidates in this former French colony, approximately the size of Texas and California combined, also are sharpening their oratory - some promising to build more roads, others appealing for the protection of democratic reforms.
One leading presidential candidate, Alfa Omar Konare, a professor of history, sits barefooted in the mat-floored homes of Muslim leaders.
Mr. Konare's Alliance for a Democratic Mali (ADEMA) reportedly made the strongest national showing in municipal elections Jan. 12. He depends almost entirely on personal appearances, not direct mailings or television, to reach voters. In a country where just 18 percent of the people are literate and the government controls the only TV station, this strategy makes sense.
"My main concern today outside of simply winning is to reinforce the democratic process," Konare says in an interview at his spacious home after just three-and-a-half hours sleep following a 14-hour day campaigning.
"Even if we win, we must share power," he says, his hoarse voice fading to a whisper after hours of speechmaking.
One way to share power, he explains, would be to fill some key government posts with members of the opposition.
"I think it's important for [those] in power to help build up the opposition," he says.
Some African candidates might wish for landslide victories. But Konare is worried that members of one party might physically attack members of other parties, during the campaigning or afterward, to settle personal feuds.
At a public rally, he shouts to the crowd in a poor neighborhood in Bamako, the capital: "If you join ADEMA, respect people."
Though using a microphone, Konare frequently shouts, sometimes with apparent anger, a contrast with the air of humility he displayed earlier in the day when meeting Muslim leaders and others he says can influence voters. He exhorts the crowd to remember that "people were shot and died for these elections."
In his speech, as throughout the day, Konare avoids making many promises. His economic plan is simple: good management, honesty in accounting for public funds, a minimal state role in a free market, and a reduction of taxes to encourage expansion of business. It is a move he hopes will lead to more jobs.
"I simply said ADEMA doesn't have money to distribute right and left," he says, striding down a dirt alleyway to his car after after meeting a neighborhood chief early on a recent day of campaigning. "But we're here to identify the problems. What we guarantee is good management."
And that is about all he can promise in one of the poorest countries in the world, whose government is deep in debt after 31 years of corrupt rule.
As a university student, Konare was active in antigovernment demonstrations. He rose to national prominence when, as a minister in General Traors government, he boldly accused the regime of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement in a public speech in 1980. Konare was obliged to resign his post soon after, associates say.
"He was courageous," says Kadida Dienta, a Malian working for an international development organization in Bamako. She recalls when Konare launched Mali's first independent, regularly printed newspaper, Les Echos, in 1989. It quickly became a forum for criticism of the regime.
"People said: 'If they can print that, I can say it, Ms. Dienta says. A Western diplomat describes Les Echos as "very influential."
When told that Mali's current head of state, Colonel Toure (See interview, right), had earlier said the military might return to power if conditions - such as tribal strife - required it, Konare reacts with visible anger.
"It's not up to the military to decide if the democratic process is working or not, it's up to the people, or parties, to decide. The return of the military would be a catastrophe."
Konare says Malians must learn to do more themselves and not rely so much on government. That concern, apparently, is growing among Malians.