Bamako — Counting was under way Monday in Mali following a key presidential election in which balloting was halted at hundreds of polling stations because of violence.
Nonetheless, candidates and authorities praised Sunday’s first round of voting, relieved that the violence — which included the torching of polling stations and assaults on electoral officials — caused no casualties.
Security was a central issue during the campaign, in which 73-year-old President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is seeking re-election, with the international community hoping the poll will strengthen a 2015 peace accord.
On Monday evening, Keita’s coalition announced the incumbent seemed "largely ahead" in the results.
"He is in a good position to get a second term," Mahamadou Camara, a spokesman for the president, told reporters.
Leading the pack of his 23 challengers is Soumaila Cisse, 68, a former finance and economy minister, who lost by a wide margin in the 2013 election that brought Keita to power.
Cisse’s campaign director, Tiebile Drame, said the team was "legitimately satisfied" but criticised authorities for failing to provide adequate security.
About 30,000 security personnel were deployed throughout the country.
"Luckily, there were no casualties," said Drame, while insisting that his candidate would force a second round run-off.
The aim to re-elect the president in the first round was "already a failure", he said.
The polls were observed by teams from the European Union, the African Union, the regional Ecowas grouping and the Francophonie organisation.
Cisse’s team had warned of possible election fraud, claiming there were two electoral lists and hundreds of fake polling stations.
He and other challengers, who include several former ministers and just one woman — an entrepreneur — have accused Keita of incompetence on security matters.
Most of the violence on Sunday occurred in the north and centre of the sprawling semi-desert country, regions already hit by ethnic unrest and jihadism.
Not a single ballot was cast at 716 polling stations in the two regions, following threats and attacks by armed groups, government figures showed — with no plans announced to give residents a chance to vote.
"Very few people were expecting that voting would be able to take place in all of the country," Sean Smith, senior West Africa analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, told AFP.
In Mali’s north, where the state is barely present, armed groups who signed the peace accord helped to ensure security.
"This is the big difference between the north and the centre of the country: it is possible to negotiate with (armed) groups in the north, but not at all in central (Mali)," said Aurelien Tobie, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
Violence also marred the lead-up to the vote, despite the presence of 15,000 UN peacekeepers, 4,500 French troops and a much-heralded five-nation anti-terrorist G5 Sahel force.
The jihadist violence has spread from northern Mali to the centre and south of the country, and spilled over into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, often inflaming communal conflicts.
Mali, considered a linchpin state in the troubled Sahel region, is one of the world’s poorest countries, with most people living on less than $2 a day.
The organisation of the vote was "a huge security challenge", Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubeye Maiga said late on Sunday, praising the proceedings "despite minor security incidents".
Election officials were attacked, polling stations destroyed and state administrators banned from villages by armed groups, according to local authorities and observers.
There was no voting in the village of Lafia, in the northern Timbuktu region, after the ballot boxes were set on fire, local authorities said.
One source said the boxes were burned after men he said were jihadists fired shots into the sky. "One of them said ‘God does not like elections’."
Elsewhere in the country, however, voting occurred smoothly despite a low turnout, according to electoral observers and AFP journalists.
Preliminary estimates by national observer group POCIM, which deployed more than 2,000 monitors across the country, put turnout at 37%. While still subject to change, the group’s spokesman said: "It will not go above 50%."
The vote showed that "an electoral process can still be held in even a very troubled country", Aurelien Tobie, senior researcher on Mali at the International Peace Research Institute in Stockholm, told AFP.
The first results are expected by late Tuesday, and the official outcome is set to follow on Friday at the latest.
If no candidate gains more than 50% of the first-round vote, a second round will take place on August 12.