Old guard faces rising stars in race for Mali presidency

Mali goes to the polls on Sunday to pick a new president 16 months after a military coup upended a regime held up as a beacon of democracy in troubled west Africa.

The election is seen as crucial to reuniting a country riven by conflict during a political crisis that saw French forces intervene to push out Islamist rebels who had seized the vast desert north.

If no majority winner emerges from Sunday's first round, the voting goes to a second round run-off between the two leading candidates on August 11.

One woman will go head-to-head with 26 men, with the front-runners including a fierce critic of last year's military coup and a former prime minister and leader of parliament.

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 by the monicker 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.

At his final rally in Bamako Friday, IBK vowed to ensure that "no one will make fun of Mali again" and appealed for a calm election day, telling his supporters: "This is not a fight. It is my hope that come Sunday night, the whole of Mali will be laughing."

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 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 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 surprise pick by the nation's biggest party, Adema, is seen as politically naive but he 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."