Still recovering from a radical Islamist insurgency months ago, Mali plunged ahead Sunday with elections that France and the United States had called for as a condition to release some $4 billion in aid.
Ballot counting is now under way after voters in the West African country turned out in unusually large numbers yesterday, with an outcome expected as early as tomorrow.
These presidential elections come 16 months after a military coup in Mali and six months after a French-led military intervention to liberate the desert north from rebel groups linked to Al Qaeda.
Yesterday’s vote is seen as a critical first step for a poor, landlocked country once wrongly considered a model of democracy. And the vote came amid concerns by local officials and several prominent international NGOs that hastily planned elections might further destabilize an already divided nation.
Others warned elections might put civilians at risk of attack from armed rebel groups in the north.
In the neighborhood of Lafiabougou, in the capital Bamako, lines had formed before polls had opened.
At a separate polling station across town in Hippodrome, a steady stream of voters arrived late into the evening.
APEM, a network of 2,100 Malian election observers, said that 96 percent of polling stations had opened on time and that turnout was “high.” Polls closed without reports of any major incidents.
“The process has not been easy, but I think that here today you see that the Malians, the majority, are eager to vote,” says Pierre Buyoya, a former president of Burundi and the current African Union High Representative for Mali and head of the African‐led International Support Mission in Mali.
“You see that they came very early in a great number,” Mr. Buyoya adds, “and I think that the turnout is going to be high, surely more than usual.”
In school courtyards and government buildings across the country, electoral officials guided voters through a multi-step voting process, which featured the use of biometric voting cards, known by their local acronym, NINA, for the first time in the country’s history.
The 6.8 million NINA cards arrived in June and despite initial delays in their distribution, officials insisted that at least 85 percent of the cards had reached the correct Malian citizen.
Despite the rushed implementation of a new voting system in a country where turnout for a presidential election has never exceeded 40 percent, most Malians expressed confidence in the legitimacy of the vote.
“I have my NINA card and so does my family,” says Kata Data Alhousseini Maiga, a teacher and community activist in the northern city of Gao, “the process was easy.”
Until recently, Mr. Maiga was against holding polls so soon after the war, but recent developments and a trip to Bamako has changed his opinion.
“I think considering the situation, these elections are better than past elections,” says Maiga, who has run as a candidate for local office in the past. “For the next elections, when there is more time to prepare, there will be time for a real campaign, so it will be even better."
Maiga, who resided in Gao throughout the rebel occupation, described security as his primary concern. “You need an elected president to address the problems that we are facing,” he says, “otherwise things will just continue like this.”
Sunday’s polls capped a condensed but vibrant campaign season that saw several candidates touring the nation to packed venues. Political rallies in Bamako the capital featured songs commissioned from local hip-hop artists. Women donned colorful wax-print fabric outfits featuring the faces of candidates. Large billboards and campaign posters dotted the city.
During mid-day rush hour, campaign slogans blasted in the streets via ubiquitous green “sotramas” or hollowed out vans, the most popular choice of transport for the city masses.
Of the 27 candidates running for office, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known locally by his initials, IBK, is considered to be the front-runner.
Mr. Keita served as the country’s prime minister for much of the 1990s and has run for president unsuccessfully in two previous elections.
His chief opponent, Soumaila Cissé, served as Mali’s finance minister and once headed the West African Monetary Union. Like Mr. Keita, Mr. Cissé has previously run for president.
In Mali, similar to the French system, unless a candidate garners more than 50 percent outright, a run-off second round will follow, in this case on Aug. 11.
Analysts widely anticipated a second round, though initial numbers trickling into Bamako suggest that Keita may pass the 50 percent mark.
Reports out of northern Mali, where state authorities have only just returned, and security concerns linger, suggest that voter turnout was higher than expected and took place without major incident.
However, in the northern region of Kidal, where the government enjoys a tenuous truce with ethnic Tuareg rebels who control certain towns, some polling stations did not receive a single voter.