BAMAKO (AFP) – Mali's president-elect Ibrahim Boubacar Keita began the daunting task Tuesday of planning the country's recovery from political crisis, a military coup and war after his rival conceded defeat at the polls.
Official results from the nationwide vote have not been announced, but Somaila Cisse congratulated Keita on his victory late Monday after electoral sources revealed that the former premier was comfortably ahead with two-thirds of Sunday's votes counted.
"I went to see him to congratulate him and wish him good luck for Mali," Cisse told AFP.
Mali's first election since 2007 was seen as crucial for unlocking more than $4 billion (three billion euros) pledged by international donors who halted aid in the wake of last year's coup, which ignited an Islamist insurgency and a French military offensive.
The government has until Friday to make public the result of the run-off round of the voting, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round on July 28 secured an outright majority.
But a source close to Mali's election commission told AFP that with nearly two-thirds of the ballots counted, Keita was "well ahead", while unofficial estimates obtained by AFP from Malian security sources also put the 68-year-old in the lead.
One of Cisse's aides told AFP that the former finance minister had decided to admit defeat after it became apparent that victory was out of his grasp as early as Monday morning.
Keita has become known for his blunt speech, his refusal to compromise and his reputation for toughness.
During his campaign, he vowed to unify Mali after its humiliation in having to call on former colonial power France to help repel the Islamist insurgency in the north, where Al-Qaeda-linked movements seized key towns.
"For Mali's honour, I will bring peace and security. I will revive dialogue between all the sons of our nation and I will gather our people around the values that have built our history: dignity, integrity, courage and hard work," Keita has said.
Cisse had complained of widespread electoral fraud hours before conceding his loss, but the European Union's election observation mission gave a positive assessment of the vote, saying it complied with international standards in "99 percent" of polling stations.
"Whoever is elected will be elected with democratic legitimacy. That is my belief," mission chief Louis Michel told reporters in Bamako, adding that there had been "a leap forward in terms of democracy in this country".
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton welcomed "a credible and transparent" election, pledging EU support for efforts to "build a durable peace and restore national unity".
Keita and Cisse, 63, lost out in 2002 to Amadou Toumani Toure, a respected former general who was overthrown by a military junta in March last year just weeks before the end of his final term in office.
A return to democratic rule will allow France to withdraw most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to oust Al-Qaeda-linked extremists who had occupied the north in the chaos that followed the coup.
A UN peacekeeping mission of 11,200 troops and 1,400 police has been charged with ensuring security in the months after the election.
Keita, whose Rally of the People of Mali party is a member of the Socialist International movement, will be inaugurated in September.
His mission will include tackling an economy battered by the crisis, as well as healing ethnic divisions in the north and managing the return of 500,000 people who were internally displaced or fled abroad during the conflict.
The country of more than 14 million people remains the continent's third-largest gold producer, but its $10.6 billion economy contracted by 1.2 percent last year.
Widespread poverty has contributed to unrest in the desert north, with several armed groups vying for control in the vacuum left when the Islamists fled.
The region is home predominantly to lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab populations who accuse the sub-Saharan ethnic groups that live in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the elections held "much promise" for the Malian people but urged the new administration to resist a return to "business as usual" and to adopting a zero-tolerance policy on rights abuses and corruption.
The United States meanwhile signalled that it was prepared to resume aid to Mali following the election.
Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, hailed Mali's interim government for "securing a peaceful and orderly environment in which Malians were able to vote".