Counting under way as Malians vote in tense presidential runoff

Malians have trickled to the polls to cast their ballots in a runoff presidential election overshadowed by security concerns and reports of a low turnout.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita faced off against opposition leader Soumaila Cisse on Sunday amid tightened security to prevent a repeat of the armed attacks and other security incidents which affected about a fifth of polling places during the first round of voting on July 29. 

Keita, who won 41 percent of the vote in in the first round, is favoured to beat Cisse, a former finance minister who garnered 18 percent, even though violence has surged during the incumbent’s tenure.

Counting was under way in some of the 23,000 polling stations across the country after voting ended at 18:00 GMT.

Results are expected within five days.

The Citizen Observation Pool of Mali, which deployed more than 2,000 observers, reported several security incidents. 

In the Arkodia village in the northern Timbuktu region, the chairman of the electoral office was killed, four election workers were physically harassed and the polling station was burned according to the organisation. 

In Ngouma commune, in central Mali, election officials were reportedly harmed by gunmen and two polling stations were burned in Keltamba.

The organisation reported than 50 polling stations had closed before noon because of security threats in north and central Mali. 

In the polling centres covered by its observers, the organization said the participation rate was about 8.1 percent at midday. Overall turnout in the first round was also low, at around 40 percent.

“Mali has a bad history of turnouts and this one is not different apparently,” said Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Vall, reporting from the capital, Bamako. 

“The opposition has been largely demoralised by the results many of the opposition leaders got in the first round and many of them have refused to endorse Cisse. 

“Expectations here are that the president will win this vote by a large majority as the opposition has failed to unite its ranks.” 

Marred by violence

It is the first time in Mali’s history that an incumbent president has faced a runoff after none of the 24 candidates who competed for the top seat got more than 50 percent of votes in the first round of voting.

That day was marred by armed attacks and other security incidents that disrupted at least 644 polling stations.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, officials said security would be tightened with 20 percent more soldiers on duty.

Some 36,000 Malian troops were deployed, 6,000 more than two weeks earlier, with a particular focus on Mopti where voting stations had been closed, Cheick Oumar, an aide in the prime minister’s office, told AFP news agency on Saturday.

On the eve of the runoff, Malian security forces said they arrested three men accused of “plotting targeted attacks” in Bamako. 

Fraud allegations

The first round of voting was followed by fraud allegations. Last week, Cisse reportedly mounted a legal challenge in Mali’s constitutional court alleging “ballot box-stuffing”. 

On Wednesday, the court said it had registered more than 10 requests from the opposition over anomalies in the first round of voting but that most were declared inadmissible because of timing. 

Presidential spokesman Mahamadou Camara denied the fraud allegations. 

“All the observers, international and national said that the election was good,” he told Al Jazeera in Bamako.

“There were some places in the country where people couldn’t vote and the government is trying to change that.

“When the opposition is saying that there was allegation of fraud, it’s because they know that they can’t win this election,” he said. 

The head of the EU observer mission said there had been no major incidents at 40 polling stations it had monitored, though no observers were deployed to Timbuktu, Mopti and Kidal, where violence has been rife. 

Voting turnout appeared low in the morning, but Camara said this was down to weather conditions.

“It was raining this morning, I think that’s the reason why people didn’t go to vote,” Camara said, adding that he believed that turnout would see an uptick in the afternoon and evening. 

Military deployed

The election campaign has revolved around the key issues of security, economy, job creation and poverty reduction.

Mali, a landlocked nation home to at least 20 ethnic groups where the majority of people live on less than $2 a day, has battled attacks by armed groups and intercommunal violence for years.

Peace agreements signed in 2015 by the government and rebel coalitions raised hopes of stability, but their meaningful implementation has been challenging.

As a result, the security situation remains fragile in the face of continued violent attacks, mainly in the country’s north and central regions.

Killings along ethnic lines have claimed hundreds of civilian lives this year, including at least 11 last week in the central Mopti region.

Violence has spread from the north to the centre and south of the vast country and spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.

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