Heavyweights face newcomers in race for Mali presidency

Mali goes to the polls next week to pick a new president for the first time since a military coup last year toppled a regime once held up as a beacon of democracy in troubled west Africa.

The July 28 poll is seen as crucial to reuniting a country riven by conflict during an 18-month political crisis that saw French forces intervene to push out Islamist rebels who had seized the north.

One woman will go head-to-head with 27 men, with the front-runners including a fierce critic of last year's military coup and a former prime minister and leader of parliament.

The new head-of-state will have a daunting in-tray in a country stagnating economically, deserted by tourists and foreign investors, plagued by unemployment and still threatened by an Islamist insurgency.

Among the favourites is Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a prime minister from 1994 to 2000 who founded his own party, the Rally for Mali, in 2001.

The 68-year-old, known to friends and foes alike as IBK, will be hoping it is third time lucky, having missed out in a 2002 poll marred by suspect voting and then losing by a landslide in 2007 to Amadou Toumani Toure.

Considered a political big-hitter, IBK has also served a five-year term as President of the National Assembly of Mali, between his two tilts at the presidency.

One of the few candidates with an active Twitter account, IBK updates his 1,700 followers daily with photos and videos and election slogans.

"Yes, my dear compatriots, the choice is clear. That's why my message to the Malian people is also clear: Mali first! Mali first! Mali first!" he said in a recent dispatch from the campaign trail.

Observers believe IBK's biggest rival is Soumaila Cisse, 63, who fled Bamako after being injured by supporters of the military coup of March 2012.

A no-nonsense enforcer in the regime of ex-head-of-state Alpha Oumar Konare and a former president of the Commission of the West African Economic and Monetary Union, Cisse has called for a "clearing of the junta" from the political scene.

Cisse also formed his own party in the early 2000s, the Union for the Republic and Democracy, and is also an aficionado of social media, where his 62,000 Facebook 'likes' put his rival's 48,000 in the shade.

Soumana Sacko, another former premier who was in office during the military transition from 1991 to 1992, will expect a good showing in the first round, to be followed by an August 11 run-off if there is no clear winner.

Sacko, 63, has been a vocal critic of France, Mali's former colonial power, accusing President Francois Hollande of meddling by promising to ensure residents in the former rebel bastion of Kidal were allowed to vote.

"Going against the tide of history, the anachronistic comments by President Hollande denote a certain paternalism, even a vague desire to transform Kidal, an integral part of Mali, into a French protectorate," his party said in a statement in May.

Sacko, who has also been a senior UN economist, is something of a nearly-man, having planned to run twice but withdrawing in 1997 over what he saw as widespread fraud and missing out in 2012 because of the coup.

Modibo Sidibe, 60, prime minister from 2007 to 2011, and 61-year-old former NASA and Microsoft scientist Cheick Modibo Diarra, a US citizen appointed as premier after the coup, complete the list of former heads of government among the presidential hopefuls.

Among the up-and-coming politicians running for president are 38-year-old Moussa Mara, a mayor in Bamako, and Housseyni Amion Guindo, 43, the vice-president of the Mali Football Federation from 2007 to 2009.

Dramane Dembele, 46, a surpise pick by the nation's biggest party, Adema, is seen as wet behind the ears politically but has leveraged his close ties with interim president Dioncounda Traore to become a credible candidate.

In a field of mainly political grandees in their 60s, Haidara Aichata Cisse, a legislator for a constituency near the northern city of Gao, stands out as the only female candidate.

The 54-year-old union activist and businesswoman has travelled across the world in recent months campaigning on behalf of women who are persecuted in Islamist regimes.

Asked about her future before the election was called, she told the MaliWeb internet news portal: "For now, I am a lawmaker, that is all.

"I have been able to achieve a lot as a lawmaker. For the rest, we'll see. We'll talk first about Mali, which is in a state of collapse, and then, later, we'll see."