BAMAKO, Mali (AP) — Election workers tallied votes on chalkboards Monday after the country held a peaceful presidential runoff vote, an election aimed at returning stability to a nation wracked by a separatist rebellion, a coup and a French-led campaign to dislodge al-Qaida-linked militants.
Results are expected within the next five days though former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is expected to easily win the second round. He received nearly 40 percent of ballots in the first round and endorsements from nearly all the also-rans.
Critics feared the election had been organized too quickly, and there were technical glitches reported during the first round. Former Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse, who faced Keita in the second round, had complained about the nearly 400,000 spoiled ballots.
Many voters also could not find their polling stations or did not receive their voting cards in time. Participation nationwide in the first round averaged nearly 50 percent but was as low as 12 percent in Kidal, where separatist sentiments remain high.
Ibrahima Sangho, president of the electoral monitoring group known as APEM, said Sunday's second-round vote went smoothly and that his organization was impressed with the turnout. "We think the winner is the people of Mali who have come out in large numbers to vote to show that the people have the will to pull the country out of crisis," he said. "However, no politician can run Mali as it has been run over the last 20 years. People are going to watch the new president closely and follow him closely over his campaign promises."
Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observer mission, also praised the vote. "Malians should be congratulated because it seems to me they are regaining control of their democratic destiny, which is in fact nevertheless a tradition that exists in Mali," he said.
The election is critical to unlocking $4 billion in aid promised by international donors to rebuild the country after political chaos sparked a humanitarian crisis. A democratically elected government is one of the caveats set by the international community, and a transitional government has been in place since not long after the March 2012 coup.
In the aftermath of the government's overthrow, separatist Tuareg rebels and later al-Qaida-linked militants seized control of northern Mali's towns. The radical jihadists imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law, turning the once moderate Muslim country into a place where women were whipped for going out in public without veils.
Former colonizer France launched a military operation in January after the extremists begin surging southward from their stronghold in the north. The Malian military has been able to regain control over the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu though its presence remains highly controversial in Kidal.
Tuareg separatists are still active there, and negotiations with the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad, the name they give to their homeland, are among the obstacles facing Mali's next leader.
Nearly 200,000 Malians remain in refugee camps in neighboring Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, and an untold number of others are still living in the southern capital of Bamako instead of returning home to the north.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Moustapha Diallo in Bamako, Mali also contributed to this report.