By BABA AHMED
BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Malians voted Sunday in a runoff presidential election to determine if incumbent Ibrahim Boubacar Keita will remain in office in this sprawling West African nation threatened by rising extremist violence. He faced off against opposition leader Soumaila Cisse. Sunday’s polls had low turnout by closing amid attacks and threats of violence by Islamic extremists.
The chairman of Arkodia village in the north Niafunke commune in Timbuktu region was killed, four election workers were physically harassed and the polling station there was burned, according to the Citizen Observation Pool of Mali which had more than 2,000 observers. The organization reported several incidents Sunday. Two polling stations were burned in Keltamba and election officials were harmed by gunmen in Ngouma commune in central Mali, observers said.
In north and central Mali more than 50 polling stations had closed before noon because of the threats by extremists in those regions, the organization said. In the polling centers covered by its observers, the organization said the participation rate was about 8.1 percent. It said 14.4 percent participated in Timbuktu, and only 4.8 percent in Bamako. However, their observers did not cover all voting areas, and the election commission hasn’t yet given its estimate of voter turnout.
In the July 29 first-round presidential vote, extremists killed three election workers and destroyed some voting materials. Nearly 43 percent of voters made it to the polls last month and at least 671 polling stations were closed. Despite the relatively low turnout officials called the vote well-conducted. Mali has grown more insecure since Keita beat Cisse in a second round election in 2013. Malian authorities arrested three jihadists on Friday who said they were preparing to carry out an attack during the vote in Bamako, said Mali army spokesman Col. Idrissa Traore on Sunday.
Extremists are staging more bold attacks that have spread to central Mali, where both Islamic State and al-Qaida-linked militants are present. Deadly communal clashes between ethnic groups and accusations of heavy-handed counterterror operations have caused even deeper tensions and mistrust of the state. Still, a second term for Keita, 73, seems likely. He received 41.7 percent of the vote in the first round from a field of 24 candidates and has gained endorsements from some other candidates. Dressed in his traditional white boubou, Keita voted near his home in Bamako on Sunday.
“I hope that everyone will be very vigilant,” he said, saying that any suspected attempts at fraud should be reported to police. “Ultimately this election must end as it should, with the celebration of democracy … This is what we hope for in our hearts. Cisse, 68, who placed second in the first round with nearly 18 percent of the vote, has blamed Keita for insecurity, violence and corruption. His opposition party also alleges there was voting fraud in July. Cisse has not received major endorsements from failed candidates but does have the backing of a popular spiritual leader Mohamed Ould Bouye Haidara.
“This time, I have a good feeling,” Cisse has said. His campaign director Tiebile Drame charged there were cases of stuffing of ballot boxes in several northern locations. However the constitutional court on Wednesday said it has registered more than 10 requests from the opposition over various anomalies in the first round, but most were declared inadmissible.
On Saturday, the opposition organized a march “to warn against the fraud.” Issa Namory Keita, a 57-year-old retiree, said he would vote for the incumbent, Keita.
“Unlike his challenger, my candidate knows the country well and it is he who has the solution to the problems,” he said. Another voter who was unrelated but with the same family name, Fanta Keita, said she will also vote for the current president. “He is a man who loves his country, he is a worker who has opened several development sites and I hope he continues his work,” she said. Voter turnout trickled throughout the day and it expected to remain low. Some people have fled areas of violence until the vote is over.
In central Mali, attacks have become more frequent amid communal clashes as neighbors suspect one another of being recruited by extremist groups. Meanwhile, Malian soldiers in recent months have been accused of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, during counterterror operations. On Wednesday, armed men attacked the Boni prefecture, according to a Malian security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not permitted to speak to the press. The armed men killed the prefect’s secretary.
Malian authorities have tried to reassure the public and encourage them to go to the polls for the second round. Residents in central Mali, however, have said they don’t see the increased security. Many in the municipalities of Pignariba, Lowel-Gueou and Bara-Sara have said they likely won’t be able to vote.