Vote counting began in Mali on Sunday evening with expectations of low turnout in presidential elections following threats by Al-Qaeda-linked jihadists who have tightened their grip on the fragile West African nation, and targeted attacks on polling centres.
President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita is seeking a second five-year term, but his popularity has plummeted as insecurity once confined to lawless northern regions has spread to the centre of the country, with weekly attacks on domestic and foreign security forces.
“(There) are polling stations in which we know insecurity … won’t make the vote possible there,” said Cecile Kyenge, the head of the European Union’s observer mission in the country.
Ballot boxes were burned in Mali’s north and threats from extremists kept some polling stations closed in central Mali, according to reports, though the scale of such attacks is still emerging.
Keita’s biggest challenger is Soumaila Cissé, a former finance minister who came second in the last presidential election held in 2013.
Cisse’s team has claimed an alternative electoral roll and hundreds of fake polling stations will be used to rig the vote in Keita’s favour.
More than eight million Malians are eligible to vote and partial results are due on Wednesday, though if no candidate gains the requisite half of ballots a run-off will be held on August 12.
“In 2013 the situation was much more favourable to Keita,” Andrew Lebovich, visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told The Telegraph.
“There is a risk of violence in Bamako (the capital) if fraud is too obvious,” he added.
The poll coincides with the recent deployment of 100 British troops and three RAF helicopters in Mali, backing up a 4,500-strong French counter-terrorism force and 13,000 UN peacekeepers.
Beyond the attacks mounted by Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), an alliance of jihadist groups which has pledged loyalty to Al-Qaeda, rival ethnic militias regularly clash in the north despite signing a peace deal in 2015.
The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is already recognised as the most deadly active deployment in the world, with more than 100 peacekeepers killed by bandits and jihadists since 2013.
It was set up to re-establish security after jihadists took control of northern cities in 2012 and began implementing sharia law.
Campaigning for the election was marred by attacks on a French army patrol and the destruction of the base of an African anti-jihadist force, along with ethnic clashes in the fabled city of Timbuktu.
Despite warnings of a “permanent terrorist presence in central Mali” by Mahamat Saleh Annadif, the head of the UN mission in the country, President Keita has tried to downplay the insecurity that has plagued his tenure.
He told journalists last week that only “pockets of violence” remained in the country, and asked if the attacks could “all be blamed on me”, given that foreign troops are also fighting Islamist militants