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Mali presidential election marred by violence

Officials in Mali say more than 700 polling stations were not able to operate during Sunday's presidential election because of attacks or threats of violence.

Authorities said Monday the counting of ballots is underway, but said no ballots were cast at 716 polling stations — representing just over 3 percent of the country's total — because violence forced the stations to stay closed.

The affected polling stations are located in the country's central and northern regions, areas that have already been troubled by Islamic extremism and ethnic unrest.

Electoral officials count ballot papers at the polling station on July 29, 2018 in Bamako, during Malian presidential elections

Reports of violence included election officials beaten up, ballot boxes burned and election supervisors stopped by armed groups from entering polling stations.

Security was a central issue during the campaign in which President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is seeking a second term against 24 challengers.

The government said the vote across much of the country was peaceful and was carried out in an orderly way. However, the disenfranchised voters could turn into a flashpoint for Mali if the result is close.

Keita's main challenger is Soumaila Cisse, a former finance and economy minister, who lost against the president in the 2013 election. Cisse has already complained about the vote being disrupted, as well as possible election fraud.

The international community is hoping for an overall successful presidential election in Mali. A positive outcome would help solidify a peace agreement between the government, pro-government forces and former Tuareg rebels in combating Islamic extremists in the largely lawless north.

The atmosphere was calm in the capital but instances of violence were reported in other parts of the country.

Voting was slow in the Malian capital Bamako. At 8am, there were very few people at the voting stations, in keeping with the low rate of voter card collection by the Bamako electorate. And some were even less lucky.

"I’m Eli Togo. I never got my voter card," says this voter. "I went to look for it, but it was not available. That’s a shame because I would have loved to cast my vote for my candidate. But let the best win and rule with love for our country in his heart."

There also were other reasons why Malians could not vote. By early Sunday afternoon, there were reports of attacks in the north and central regions of the country. Timbuktu, Kidal and Mopti reported violent incidents that prevented some people from casting their votes.

At least 10 incidents of violence at polling stations and against election officials had been reported by mid-afternoon.

These are the areas that have presidential candidate Cheikh Modibo Diarra worried, and not just because of the violence. There are two regions where roughly only half of the residents have been receiving there voting cards.

"For Timbuktu, that means some 175,000 votes," he said. "But when you get to Mopti, you’re talking about 1.1 million voters. If 60 per cent of those people can’t vote that means 650,000. Now provided somebody put their hands on those bulletins on behalf of those people… that can bias, you’ll agree with me, heavily the outcome of this election."

On Saturday, the government and the opposition, in the presence of international observers, reached what they called a consensus on the elimination of fictitious voters and a parallel register, which the opposition claimed tilted the election in the government’s favor by a whopping 1.2 million possible votes.

Diarra and his opposition colleagues now hope the contest will be more transparent. Mali’s vote is crucial for the international community led by France and the United States, which is using the country as a cornerstone for its fight against terrorist groups in the region.

Neighbors such as Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, which are also affected by Mali’s instabilities as they have hosted tens of thousands of refugees since the country's conflict began in 2012, are also keenly watching the outcome.

Malians consider it their civic duty to vote but have little confidence in the current system changing.

Some analysts have been predicting an upset, and in terms of names this means that either President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta or his main challenger, Soumaïla Cissé, would not win more than 50 percent of the vote, leading to a second vote on Aug. 12.

Results of Sunday's vote may be known by Wednesday, although a final result is not expected until Friday.

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