Mali Voting Stations Close After Attacks Disrupt Elections

(Bloomberg) -- Voting stations in Mali’s presidential election closed after a poll that was marred by attacks and disruptions in regions where the West African nation is battling an Islamist insurgency.

President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita asked voters for a second five-year term in a country that is the front line in a regional war against jihadists, whose bombings and hit-and-run attacks are growing more sophisticated by the month. The government’s failure to restore state authority in the troubled central region and to fight corruption have eroded popular support for the 73-year-old president, known as IBK, who is facing 23 opponents.

While Sunday’s voting proceeded on time and peacefully across most of the country, gunmen burned ballots and threatened voters and staff in parts of the center and north, said Boubacar Keita, a spokesman for the regional observer mission, West Africa Network for Peacebuilding. Rockets were fired on the United Nations mission camp in Aguelhok in the northeast, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a military source it didn’t identify. No casualties were reported.

“Overall the elections were peaceful,” said the observer mission’s Keita. “At a majority of the polling stations, people were able to cast their vote. The exception was the central region.”

Voting was canceled or disrupted in 644 out of some 23,000 polling stations, mostly in the center and north, which represent a third of voters, according to a statement from the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization.

Heavy Security

In the capital, Bamako, voter turnout picked up from about noon amid a heavy security presence after overnight rains rendered many of the city’s unpaved roads difficult to pass and affected early participation.

President Keita’s main challenger is Soumaila Cisse, 68, a former finance minister who’s banking on the youth vote with the help of Youssouf “Ras Bath” Bathily, the leader of a citizen’s movement that mobilized tens of thousands of young people in protests last year.

Pledges to improve security, sustain economic growth and invest in infrastructure featured in every candidate’s campaign. Whoever wins will have to address widespread distrust in state institutions, rampant corruption and an increase in human-rights abuses both by armed groups and the army.

Mali Voting Stations Close After Attacks Disrupt Elections

IBK won by a landslide in 2013 elections that were supposed to turn the page on more than a year of military and political upheaval. The vote came months after a French military intervention pushed back Tuareg separatists and Islamist insurgents who had seized the north of the country in the wake of a coup that left the army in tatters.

Recruitment Drive

Five years on, there are more than 20,000 French, UN and regional soldiers deployed in Mali, and the UN mission is the most deadly current operation worldwide. Mali’s center has seen a surge of inter-communal violence that’s left almost 300 people dead this year as a lack of job opportunities fuels a jihadist recruitment drive in the region.

Cisse cast his vote in the Timbuktu region in the town of Niafunke, which he also represents as a lawmaker.

“Despite the difficulties of insecurity and transport, it was a duty for me to come and vote here,” he said. “In Niafunke everything is going well.”

First results are expected by Tuesday. Candidates need 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a run-off due Aug. 12.

Mali is the third-biggest gold producer in sub-Saharan Africa and the continent’s largest cotton grower. While the economy expanded 5.3 percent last year, poverty remains high and social discontent is growing, the IMF said in May. Military spending accounted for almost a quarter of the 2017 budget, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

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