BAMAKO (AFP) – Millions of Malians are expected to vote Sunday in "imperfect" elections they hope will usher in a new dawn of peace and stability in a country torn apart by an 18-month political crisis and armed conflict.
Voters will have a choice of 27 candidates as they go to the polls for the first time since a separatist uprising led to a coup and then a sweeping Islamist offensive last year which upended one of the region's most stable democracies.
The three-week campaign came to a close Friday without major incidents but played out in the shadow of violence in the north which has cast doubt over Mali's readiness to deliver a safe and credible election.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Mali's interim leader Dioncounda Traore have acknowledged that the vote may be "imperfect" in a country with 500,000 citizens displaced by conflict but have urged Malians to respect the outcome.
Critics of the process at home and abroad have argued that Mali, under pressure from the international community, is rushing to the polls and risking a botched election which could do more harm than good.
But Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observation mission, sounded a note of optimism Friday, saying conditions had been met for a credible first round as it emerged that 85 percent of voter cards had been distributed.
"I believe that these elections can take place in a context and in conditions that are acceptable and do not allow for a distortion or an abuse of the result," he told reporters in the capital Bamako.
"I really think the personality who emerges during this election will have more than enough legitimacy."
The United States has urged Malians to vote, including in the restive north, and said it would have observers on the ground to bolster the European Union mission comprised of 100 observers.
"We encourage all Malians to take full advantage of this opportunity to express their will through the ballot box and to remain peacefully engaged in the political process as we approach election day," deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on Thursday.
Much of the worry ahead of the polls has been focused on Kidal, occupied for five months by Tuareg separatists until a ceasefire accord allowed the Malian army earlier this month to provide security.
Clashes between Tuaregs and black Africans a week ago left four people dead while five polling officials were kidnapped in Tessalit, 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Kidal, by gunmen thought to be from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The ballot will be the first since a coup in March last year that toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure and created an opening that allowed the MNLA and groups allied to Al-Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 west African soldiers into its ranks is charged with ensuring security during and after the election, and will grow to 11,200 troops, plus 1,400 police, by the end of the year.
The deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards Bamako from their northern strongholds.
France plans to have just 1,000 troops on the ground before the end of 2013 and has been pushing for a quick election in the hopes of restoring order to the country, under the control of an interim government since the coup.
The list of candidates to Mali's next president features four former prime ministers and an array of political heavyweights -- but just one woman.
Haidara Aichata Cisse, a legislator for a constituency near the northern city of Gao, will go head-to-head with 26 men, including past premiers Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Cheick Modibo Diarra, Modibo Sidibe and Soumana Sacko.
Keita, prime minister from 1994 to 2000 and president of the National Assembly for five years from 2002, is seen as the main frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, a former chairman of the Commission of the West African Monetary Union.
"I have rarely felt such a fusion with the people of Mali, I have rarely felt such a communion, I have rarely seen rising in me such fervour," Keita said Thursday in an interview with AFP.