By Liu Fang
BAMAKO, Aug. 10 (Xinhua) -- Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, has suffered turmoil for nearly 17 months and awaits with enthusiasm Sunday's presidential run-off to elect a new president.
The result might mark a fresh start to bring the West African country out of its political and economic crisis since the military coup in March 2012.
WIDELY SHARED HOPE FOR A POLITICAL MAKEOVER If the election is well conducted, "the democratic processes will be relaunched in a constitutional form, this is already a new start," Klena Sanago, director of the Institute of Human Sciences in Mali, said in an interview with Xinhua on the eve of the second round.. "There is a hope shared by the Malian people. We might witness a though makeover of the political class, which lags behind the mutation," Sanago said.
"The coup d'Etat hit us because the politicians had governed the country badly and the political class must be renewed," he added.
Following the coup by low-ranking officers who overthrew president Amadou Toumani Toure, the desert north of the country was rendered a security vacuum. Ethnic Tuareg rebels, who have long sought autonomy, took control of the vast region.
During the conflicts, Islamist fighters imposed sharia law and destroyed historic sites in Timbuktu, symbols of grandeur of the Mali kingdom in the middle ages.
As the rebels kept pushing towards the south, the Malian authorities of transition in January had to ask for French military intervention and help from other African countries, especially from the West African bloc ECOWAS. Although the rebels have since been driven out of northern towns, the country is facing all the post-war challenges,
"Administrative services are deprived of budget. Actions for development are blocked. The tourism went down to zero, no one came to visit our sites," Lassana Cisse, director of the country's national patrimony, said in dismay.
In the capital Bamako, the Niger River meanders calmly across spreading greens, inviting exclamation for its friendly natural environment for human inhabitants, except for unbearable heat wave in arid season.
But, the man-made part of its landscape is more than sad. Once out of a few brand new blocks, shanty wooden huts align streets in all of its six districts, dotted by appalling piles of garbage and abandoned building sites, both apparently being there for months or even years. For the capital's 2 million or so inhabitants, the coming vote means a chance to turn the page. "We need a new president. We need a new life," said Tidjanie Bah, a driver in his thirties. The eagerness to vote is visible. People continued to withdraw their "Nina", the number of national identification, or voter's card, before presidential campaigns officially called to an end on Friday midnight.
IBK CLEARLY IN LEAD Starting from 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, 6.8 million voters among the country's 15 million souls will cast their ballots at around 25, 000 polling stations. The Malian police and army supported by 6000 troops of the UN-led mission for the stabilization of Mali (MINUSMA) are deployed around key sites, especially in the north where Islamic radicals had made attempts of intimidation during the first round held on July 28. The choice seems divided between the two finalists, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, the 68-year-old former prime minister, and his long-term rival Soumaila Cisse.
With a clear lead, Keita garnered 39.79 percent of votes in the first round and the 63-year-old former finance minister had 19.70 percent. Seen by many as being close to the people, Keita, better known as "IBK" for his initials, enjoys assets of rich political experiences (seven years as prime minister and five years as president of the National Assembly), good relations with the religious and military circles, as well as wide connections with other leaders in Africa. Cisse presents himself as a spokesman of the new generation. His last campaign meeting struck a festival tone as usual, gathering a large crowd of happily chanting and applauding young people. "I count on the youth, I count on the women. They are the most populous layer of our people...I know them, because I have lived some of what they have experienced. Because I am just like them, on the Internet, on Twitter, on Facebook. To some extent I speak street language. The language of the street, is the language of cybernetics, the language of today," Cisse told Xinhua in an interview on Friday evening.
However, both are widely known as Mali's Paris-educated political elites, both having lived long with the previous regimes.
For Sanago, six years younger is not an incontestable argument for Cisse to claim himself icon of young generation. What's regretful, "one is political and the other is economic, we would like have two in one person, unfortunately we do not," he told Xinhua.
HUGE CHALLENGES FOR THE NEW PRESIDENT Observers agree that negotiations over the disputed north is the first but not hardest challenge on the table of the new president.
"The position of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on this issue is very nationalist...The trap is that he might fail to negotiate and decide in the name of the whole Malian people. He risks a lot," said professor Issa N'Diaye, former minister in the governments of ex-presidents Amadou Toumani Toure and Alpha Oumar Konare.
Born in the northern town of Timbuktu, Cisse tries to convince Malians with a policy focused on dialogue and development. He plans to negotiate a durable peace with northern representatives. "I don't see how the new president could satisfy all the requests of the MNLA (the Liberation Movement of Azawad, Azawad being the name the separatists give to the north). If he satisfies all the wishes of the MNLA, he will immediately have the entire nation against him," Sanago said. In other words, as the northerners condition their negotiations on full autonomy, the new government must carefully enter into dialogue, maintaining unity on the one hand, answering to basic needs of the population in the north on the other. As to the mobilizing of the much needed international aid, cut off since the coup, the new president must prove himself by bringing out consensus and executive capacity.
"Look at examples in other places, nothing of financial injection comes automatically. There are always conditions. We have to wait and see," said the professor.