Malians voted in a crucial election runoff on Sunday that has been marred by allegations of fraud and a tense security situation in the vast West African country.
It is holding a second election after the 24 candidates who competed for the top seat failed to get more than the required 50 percent of votes in the first round last month.
Voting goes from 08:00 GMT to 18:00 GMT. Turnout was low in the first round at about 40 percent.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who won 41 percent of the vote in July’s poll, is favoured to beat Soumaila Cisse, who garnered 18 percent, even though violence has surged during his tenure.
The chaotic first round was a reminder that fighters – some linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – have regrouped since a French intervention in 2013, and are now expanding their influence across Mali’s desert north and into the fertile centre.
‘Return of peace’
Dramane Camara, 31, was the first to vote at one polling station in a school in the capital, Bamako.
“I voted without problem, I came to fulfill my duty as a citizen,” Camara said. “I expect the new president to solve the problem of the north, which is peace. Because the return of peace means the return of NGOs, investors, so creating jobs.”
Sunday’s vote is a rerun of a 2013 face-off that Keita won by a landslide over Mali’s former finance minister Cisse.
It is the first time in Mali’s history that an incumbent president has had to face a runoff. More than nine million people registered to take part in the election.
July’s poll was marred by armed attacks and other security incidents that disrupted about one-fifth of polling places – or 644 stations – and the threat of violence could again dampen turnout on Sunday.
Civil society website Malilink recorded 932 attacks in the first half of 2018, almost double that for all of 2017.
Some armed groups are also stoking inter-communal conflict, mostly between herders and pastoralists. Killings along ethnic lines have claimed hundreds of civilian lives this year, including at least 11 last week in the central Mopti region.
Officials in the capital, Bamako, said security will be tightened for the second round, with 20 percent more soldiers on duty.
This means 36,000 Malian troops will be 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.
Outside Mali, the hope is the election winner will strengthen a 2015 accord that the fragile Sahel state sees as its foundation for peace.
The deal brought together government officials, government-allied groups, and former Tuareg rebels.
But a state of emergency heads into its fourth year in November.
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.