Voters in Mali are casting their ballots for a president they hope will usher in a new era of peace and stability in the West African nation.
Polls opened at 8am on Sunday in a run-off that pits Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 63, a former prime minister, against Soumaila Cisse, a former finance minister.
Almost seven million people are registered to vote in the election that is crucial to Mali’s recovery following a military coup in 2012 that led to an armed uprising and a French-led military intervention.
Voting cards and ballots have also been distributed in refugee camps in neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger, home to some 170,000 Malians.
However, Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Vall, reporting from the Bassikounou refugee camp in Mauritania, said some Malians told him they would not vote because it would not change their “desperate situation”.
The two candidates declared themselves confident of victory in the run-off, called after none of the 27 candidates in the first round on July 28 achieved an outright majority.
The election, the first since 2007, is crucial to unlocking more than $4bn in aid promised after international donors halted contributions in the wake of last year’s coup.
Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from the capital Bamako, said: “The mood is that of high expectation. People are hopeful that a new government is in place to immediately start tackling problems such as unemployment and corruption.
In the first round of voting, Keita won 39.8 percent of the vote and Cisse won 19.7 percent. Cisse’s claims of voter fraud were rejected by the Mali Constitutional Court.
The return to democratic rule will allow France, Mali’s former colonial master, to withdraw most of the 4,500 troops it sent in January to remove al-Qaeda-linked fighters who had occupied the north in the chaos which followed the coup.
Lydie Boka, an Africa analyst based in France, told Al Jazeera that the winner would have to deal with serious challenges, mainly reconciling the country’s south with the politically unstable north.
Keita said reconciliation would be his “first priority”.
Keita claims to have the support of most of the candidates eliminated in the first round and is backed by Mali’s influential religious establishment, while Cisse has been endorsed by Adema, Mali’s largest political party.
A UN peacekeeping mission integrating more than 6,000 African soldiers is charged with ensuring security on Sunday and in the months after the election. By the end of the year it will have grown to 11,200 troops and 1,400 police.
Widespread poverty has contributed to unrest in the north, with several armed groups vying for control in the vacuum left when the fighters fled.
The region is home predominantly to lighter-skinned Tuareg and Arab populations who accuse the sub-Saharan ethnic groups that live in the more prosperous south of marginalising them.
Keita and Cisse have faced off before, losing the 2002 presidential election to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March 2012 as he was preparing to end his final term in office.