The West African nation of Mali will hold presidential elections on Sunday. While the country is often perceived as a model for democracy in the region, the United Nations ranks it among the world's 10 poorest nations. Chronic poverty, illiteracy and a rise in Islamic militancy are among the concerns facing Malian voters as they go the polls.
Twenty-four candidates are vying for the presidency - the greatest number on record in Mali. The list includes a retired general who restored democracy, a former prime minister, a comedian and a space engineer.
Among the front-runners in Sunday's poll is Amadou Toumani Toure, the retired army general who took part in a 1991 coup d'etat that ousted long-time military ruler Moussa Traore.
Mr. Toure served as a transition leader during the months leading up to the elections. He impressed the international community when he handed over power, as promised, to elected-President Alpha Oumar Konare in 1992.
Amadou Toumani Toure, popularly known in Mali as "ATT," tells VOA he hopes to win the presidency based on the image he has cultivated.
Mr. Toure said he considers himself an architect of Mali's democracy. "In 1991," he said, "I took part in a coup d'etat. I organized free and transparent elections in which I did not participate, and I think democracy has grown since then. Without being immodest," he added, "I think I am a father of that democracy."
Unlike some of his counterparts in Africa in past years, Mali's current president, Mr. Konare, did not try to change the constitution in order to extend his time in power after serving the maximum-allowed two, five-year terms.
While many Malians say they are proud of their 10-year-old democracy, many say they have yet to see an improvement in their standard of living.
In Bamako's impoverished Medina-Coura district, unemployed men sit outside their homes all day. Twenty-four-year-old law student Moriba Coulibaly, a resident of Medina Coura, said he fears he may be in the same situation after he graduates from university. He tells a reporter he may vote on Sunday, but he does not have much faith anything will improve.
Mr. Coulibaly said he is disappointed with the first 10 years of Mali's democratic government. "With the coming of democracy," he said, "one thought everything would change for the better. It has been the opposite." He said he is disappointed with the living conditions in Mali. Mr. Coulibaly said, "I thought that with democracy, we would have enough to eat, health care would be guaranteed. None of it has happened."
Only slightly more than 30 percent of Malians know how to read and write, and a majority live on less than one dollar a day.
Islamic militancy is on the rise in Mali, and many here point to conditions of poverty and illiteracy as causes.
The influence of militant groups, however, has been contained. The government has vowed to adhere to the constitution, which guarantees a secular state. Earlier this year, a government-funded High Council on Islam was established, bringing together scores of Islamic associations. The council's mandate is to regulate Islamic activities, including controls on what is taught in Koran-based schools.
Mr. Konare's government has made visible efforts to improve the country's economic conditions, by - among other things - following directives issued by the International Monetary Fund. The World Bank predicts Mali will sustain a seven percent growth rate this year.
The country is Africa's largest producer of cotton, and a major exporter of gold.
In Bamako, massive infrastructure projects continue, with new buildings going up, expressways being built, and - perhaps most visible of all - new monuments at many of the busier intersections.
But many Malians say these projects are meant to show foreign investors and aid donors that progress has been made during the past 10 years. Behind these aesthetic improvements, some say, there needs to be real change that will make the lives of Malians better.
Aminata Traore, a sociologist and former member of President Konare's cabinet, said whoever is elected must concentrate on improving the lives of the average citizen if democracy is to be preserved. Ms. Traore said that in addition to democracy, there must be what she calls "social justice, a better distribution of wealth, a democratic process that benefits Mali and Malians - not one that is meant to please foreign investors," she said, "who may or may not come."
International observers monitoring the electoral process say there is reason for optimism in Mali. They say the country has a number of advantages that some of its neighbors in the region do not share: ethnic harmony, a decentralized government, a secular state and a strong national identity.
Monitors say preparations for Sunday's poll have gone largely without incident. The government predicts more than five-million people - about half of the population - will turn out to vote.
If no candidate wins 50 percent in Sunday's voting, a second round between the top two candidates will be held May 12.