, BAMAKO, Jul 29 – Mali voted for a new president in a bid to usher in peace and stability in the first election since a military coup helped plunge the country into chaos.
Voters chose Sunday from 27 candidates to lead the nation from the crisis ignited by last year’s mutiny, which allowed Islamists to seize the vast desert north before a French-led military intervention dislodged them earlier this year.
Preliminary results collated by journalists in polling stations after the end of voting suggested that former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had taken a clear early lead.
The unofficial projection, based on the accounts of reporters watching counts across the country, indicates that Keita, 69, could even cause an upset and win the first round outright.
His supporters were already celebrating in the capital Bamako outside his party headquarters, as news of his apparent lead was broadcast on local radio.
French President Francois Hollande welcomed the smooth running of the vote, “marked by a good turnout and an absence of any major incident”.
Voting stations opened at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) under heavy security.
A day earlier, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), one of the main armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), had threatened to “strike” polling stations. There were no reports of serious incidents, however.
After casting his ballot in Bamako, acting president Dioncounda Traore, who was not running in the election, called on all candidates to respect the outcome.
“I am very satisfied with the general conditions in terms of the organisation of the elections,” he said.
The APEM Network, an independent Malian organisation that deployed 2,100 observers across the nation, reported a strong turn-out among the country’s electorate of almost seven million.
Louis Michel, chief of the European Union election observation mission, told reporters after voting ended: “Overall everything went well. There was the enthusiasm among voters”.
A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed the peaceful conditions in which voting had taken place.
In a polling station at a school in Bamako, hundreds of voters queued 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.
Voting in the restive north also passed off peacefully.
In Gao, northern Mali’s largest city, dozens lined up to vote in a school near Independence Square. During the Islamist occupation it had been renamed “Sharia Square”.
In the northern desert town of Timbuktu, polls went ahead after initial problems with organisation, with many unable to find their names on voting lists.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls had been focused on Kidal. It was occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army to provide security earlier this month.
Ethnic clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans in the run-up 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 kilometres (125 miles) north of Kidal.
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 with Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
A UN peacekeeping force was deployed to Mali earlier this month. The deployment, which will reach 12,600 by the end of the year, allows France to start withdrawing most of its 4,500 troops, who arrived there in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards Bamako.
Among the candidates, Keita is seen as the frontrunner. His main rival is thought to be Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union.
“This election will help us forget the nightmare,” Keita said after voting. “We will have a head of state elected without ambiguity,” he continued, adding that he felt confident of success.
Cisse urged Malians to “turn the page” and “restore peace to republican institutions”.
An official announcement on the first-round result is not expected until Friday, but if no candidate wins an overall majority then a second round run-off between the top two contenders will be held on August 11.