BAMAKO (Reuters) - The frontrunner in Mali's presidential election wound up his campaign on Friday with a promise to restore peace and dignity to the West African country scarred by a coup and Islamist uprising last year.
Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 68, an ex-prime minister with a reputation for toughness, won last month's ballot with nearly 40 percent of the vote - but fell short of a majority. He will face ex-finance minister Soumaila Cisse in a runoff on Sunday.
Drawing wide support for a pledge to impose order after a military coup that plunged Mali into chaos, Keita has been endorsed by over 20 of the 27 first-round candidates. Cisse, who took 19 percent in the first round, has focused on improving education, creating jobs and reforming the army.
Once seen as a model for democracy in turbulent West Africa, Mali imploded last year when al Qaeda-linked rebels took advantage of the coup to seize control of the vast desert north, where they imposed a harsh version of sharia (Islamic law).
France intervened militarily in January to destroy the Islamist enclave, which it said threatened the West, but Paris is now looking to pull out most of its remaining 3,000 troops.
"For the honour of Mali, I will bring peace. For the honour of Mali, I will bring security," Keita, universally known by his initials IBK, said in a campaign broadcast late on Thursday. "I have promised this and I will do it, God willing."
Sunday's election should unlock some 3 billion euros in aid and allow France to hand responsibility for maintaining security to a 12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission being deployed.
With the end of campaigning coinciding with the Eid festival to mark the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, both candidates canceled their political rallies.
The waterlogged streets of the riverside capital Bamako, Keita's stronghold, were quiet after heavy rains, but some small political meetings took place.
"IBK is someone who has a firm hand and we need that right now in Mali," said Saidou Salif Traore, 33, a university teacher who attended a youth rally in support of Keita. "He is the only one who saw these problems coming."
Keita opposed a 2006 peace deal with Tuareg separatists that demilitarised much of northern Mali - a sparsely populated area the size of Texas. He was a critic of the government of President Amadou Toumani Toure that was ousted amid widespread frustration over its corruption and passivity towards Tuaregs.
VOTING FOR REFUGEES
Keita has captured the popular mood by avoiding outspoken criticism of the coup leaders, earning the tacit blessing of the military. He has also successfully courted Mali's powerful Islamic clerics, several of whom have endorsed him.
Critics say Cisse, who condemned the coup, defends a corrupt political class which dragged Mali into the current crisis by ignoring rising frustration at poverty. The majority of Mali's 16 million people live in poverty on less than $1.25 a day.
Cisse rejects the claim, saying he was defending democracy.
With hundreds of Islamist fighters killed and those who survived scattered by the French-led offensive, the most pressing challenge facing the new president will be peace talks with the Tuareg MNLA separatists.
A ceasefire deal that allowed voting in northern Mali obliges a new government to open talks within 60 days. The MNLA says fighting may resume if it does not win greater autonomy for their northern homeland, which they dub "Azawad".
Many in populous southern Mali, however, are bitterly opposed to any concessions to the Tuaregs, who they blame for triggering the crisis with their uprising.
The overall turnout of 49 percent in the July 28 first round of the election was a record, though it was far lower in the north and in camps housing 170,000 refugees in neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.
The United Nations flew election material to Mauritania on Friday in an effort to boost participation in the runoff.