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Mali Election Seen As Most Open Since Independence

Polls have closed in Mali's presidential elections. Voters chose from a list of 24 candidates, the longest on record in the West African nation.

Observers say these appear to be the most open elections Mali has had in its four decades of independence. Unlike the last elections, held in 1997, no party or candidate boycotted the poll.

Observers say the voting Sunday was carried out in an atmosphere of calm overall. In some districts of the capital, Bamako, some voters complained of delays that were due to the names of some voters not being on registration lists.

The poll took place as President Alpha Oumar Konare prepares to step down after serving the maximum of two five-year terms allowed by the country's constitution. Mr. Konare has won praise from the international community for not attempting to change the law in order to remain in power.

Those on the ballot Sunday included a comedian, a former prime minister and a number of former ministers who served under President Konare.

Mali is ranked by the United Nations as one of the world's poorest nations, with a majority of its people living on under one dollar a day. The literacy rate is just over 30 percent, which raised concerns about whether many voters were able to make informed choices on Sunday. Nevertheless, though impoverished, Mali is politically stable.

"That they are able to access the right to vote and to do so in a way that we can reasonably expect is an informed choice is a difficult thing to achieve," said David Pottie of the U.S.-based Carter Center, who was among the more than 100 observers on hand to oversee the voting. "One of the obvious ways is a very strong reliance on images and party colors and logos. So the ballot paper design reflects that with a photograph of the presidential candidate, front and center, on each of the ballot papers. Having said that, the fact that there are 24 candidates makes it difficult for even a literate person to distinguish. For a less-informed voter, the act of voting may be an intimidating or overwhelming experience."

Like many people in Mali, Aicha Alkaya Toure does not speak French, the country's official language. She was among those turning out at a polling station in central Bamako early Sunday. Speaking in Mali's Bambara language, Mrs. Toure says it was truly difficult to choose a candidate among the 24 faces on the ballot.

She said that although she knew who she was going to vote for, once she was in the booth, she found it difficult to go through all 24 cards with 24 different faces. Otherwise, she says, the process went smoothly.

Another voter, English teacher Adiza Maiga, says she is proud that there were so many candidates.

"That means we have many political parties. It means we have democracy in Mali," she said. "Those who were not talking, those who were fighting, came together and said, 'we will join as one and vote for one president.' I think this is really democracy. This is an example of democracy in Africa."

The front-runners on the ballot Sunday included former Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, former Environment Minister Soumaila Cisse, and retired army General Amadou Toumani Toure, a former transition leader who is credited with bringing multi-party rule to Mali ten years ago.

Election organizers say early results are expected on Monday or Tuesday. If no contestant wins a 51 percent majority, a second round will be held on May 12 between the top two candidates.