Mali election challenges loom as rivals stake claims

BAMAKO Mon Jul 29, 2013 5:42pm EDT

1 of 7. Poll workers count ballots after the end of voting in Mali's presidential elections in Timbuktu July 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Joe Penney

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BAMAKO (Reuters) - Former Malian prime minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita's campaign team said on Monday its results put Keita in a strong lead and in reach of outright victory in Mali's election, but rivals said they were sure a run-off vote would have to be held.

The statements came ahead of official tallies from Sunday's vote and are the first signs of tension after a robust turnout and the lack of violence showed how eager Malians were to turn the page on more than a year of turmoil, war and an army coup.

The first official figures were not due until Tuesday. Full provisional results are expected by Friday, the country's director-general for territorial administration told state television late on Monday.

"We have information coming from our own teams ... that show we are well ahead and a first round victory is in reach," said Mahamadou Camara, a spokesman for Keita, who is universally known by his initials, IBK.

A run-off would take place on August 11 if no candidate secures over 50 percent of the vote.

Keita's rivals, who include ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse, Modibo Sidibe, a former prime minister, and Dramane Dembele, the candidate of Mali's biggest party, said they were sure a second round would be needed.

The three, all members of the FDR coalition set up against the junta last year, met to issue a joint statement on Monday.

"There cannot be a victory in the first round," Amadou Koita, the coalition's spokesman, said in the statement.

Cisse, seen as Keita's strongest challenger, said he had flagged concerns over preparations ahead of the vote and would contest the results if there was no run-off called.

"Across Bamako, there was organized fraud. Fraud is fraud, there is no such thing as small fraud," he told Reuters.

The vote was the first since a coup in March last year led to the occupation of Mali's north by separatist and Islamist rebels. French forces intervened in January to defeat the al Qaeda-linked fighters, whose threats to disrupt the election did not materialize.

Local newspapers lauded the vote on Monday morning, with state-run L'Essor saying the turnout was "exceptional".

"There were women, old people, blind people. Everyone wanted to vote," said Mariam Diallo-Drame, a youth leader who had encouraged people to take part in the election.

"This is the first time ever we had a truly democratic election. We have never seen that in Mali...We understood what happens if we don't fulfill our obligations. People are saying it is now up to the politicians to understand," she said.

However, the candidates - 26 men and one woman - are known quantities and few expect the kind of radical overhaul of Mali's political class that many say is necessary.

SOME IMPERFECTIONS

Gamer Dicko, a spokesman at the Interior Ministry, which organized the vote, said it would take time to transport the results sheets across the country, which is twice the size of France, and collate them.

Chief EU observer Louis Michel said on Monday the election took place in a calm atmosphere and participation exceeded 50 percent in some places.

Turnout at some polling stations visited by Reuters on Sunday was more than 50 percent, while participation in previous presidential elections has never exceeded 40 percent.

"No major incidents were reported even though there were some imperfections," Michel told journalists in Bamako.

Some Malians had difficulty finding polling stations and thousands displaced by the war are likely to have missed the vote as they would not have received the newly-printed ID cards.

Voting in Kidal, the heart of the Tuareg rebellion in Mali's desert north that sparked the crisis last year, was muted and overshadowed by minor protests, observers and residents said.

"But none of these incidents, none of these imperfections could jeopardize the legitimacy of the results," Michel said.

The future president must still secure a long-term peace with separatist rebels.

"There is no difference in opinion between the observer missions. But the lack of participation in Kidal shows how tricky it will be for whoever comes in," said one diplomat.

The relatively high turnout and the lack of violence support those in Mali and world powers, especially France, who pushed for the vote to be held despite rushed preparations and fears of marginalizing thousands of voters.

A vote should also pave the way for donors to disburse some 3 billion euros in reconstruction aid promised in May.

Groups of Keita's supporters spilled onto the streets of the capital overnight after local media announced results showing him scoring victories in individual polling stations there.

They whistled and chanted "IBK, IBK" and "Takokele" - which means just one round in the local Bamabara language - reflecting confidence in Keita's camp of an outright win.

The United Nations has called on the election candidates to respect the results, even if the process was imperfect.

(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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