BAMAKO: Polling closed in Mali without any major incidents Sunday after a presidential election expected to usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in the conflict-scarred West African nation.
The vote had been conducted in the shadow of a threat by an Al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group to “strike” polling stations but there had been no reports of violence as booths across the country shut at 6 p.m. local time.
Nearly 7 million voters had a choice of 27 candidates to lead the troubled nation away from a crisis ignited by the mutiny which allowed Islamists to take control of its vast north before they were dislodged by a French-led military intervention.
The ballot opened at 8 a.m. under heavy security after one of the main armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Mali said Saturday it would attack polling stations.
“The polling stations and other voting places for what they are calling the elections will be targeted by mujahedeen strikes,” the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) said in a statement carried by neighboring Mauritania’s ANI news agency.
It did not specify what form the attacks would take but the group warned Malian Muslims to “stay away from the polls.”
Acting President Dionounda Traore called on all candidates to respect the outcome after casting his ballot in Bamako, without revealing whom he had picked.
“I am very satisfied with the general conditions in terms of the organization of the elections. I think that as far as Malians can remember, this is the best-organized election since 1960,” he said.
The APEM Network, an independent Malian organization that deployed 2,100 observers across the nation, said in a statement issued halfway through the voting that 96 percent of polling stations covered by the observers had opened on time.
APEM said “a large voter turnout was found,” but noted a north-south divide with a better turnout in the south, home to 90 percent of the electorate.
In a polling station at a school in Mali’s capital, hundreds of voters had been queuing for more than an hour to cast their ballots.
“We are tired of bad governance. I’d urge the candidates to accept the results of our vote,” said machine operator Kalifa Traore, 56.
Polling stations in the restive north opened in an atmosphere of calm, although the campaign has played out in the shadow of violence that has raised doubts over Mali’s readiness to deliver a safe and credible election.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls had been focused on Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a cease-fire accord allowed the Malian army earlier this month to provide security.
Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans in the runup to the election left four people dead.
And gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) kidnapped five polling officials 200 kilometers north of Kidal. Voting opened late in many parts of the town.
At one polling station, each voter was being searched by soldiers from the United Nation’s peacekeeping mission, which is charged with ensuring security Sunday and in the months after the election.
The ballot is the first since the military mutiny in March last year that toppled democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Toure. The ensuing confusion helped the MNLA, MUJAO and other groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
The U.N. deployment, which will reach 12,600 by the end of the year, allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing toward Bamako.