Voters in Mali are heading to the polls on Sunday to pick their president, in a crucial election many hope will quell years of political unrest and violence, as well as improve economic conditions in the country.
The poll comes six years after the military staged a coup to remove then-President Amadou Toumani Toure, plunging Mali into chaos and paving the way for separatist rebels to seize control of its northern two-thirds.
French forces intervened the following year to push back the rebels who used the Sahel as a launchpad for attacks in the region.
A 2013 poll marked a return to democratic rule, with Keita, also known as IBK, winning a presidential runoff with 78 percent of the vote.
Peace agreements signed in 2015 by the government and rebel coalitions raised hopes of stability, but their meaningful implementation has been challenging.
As a result, the security situation remains fragile in the face of continued violent attacks, mainly in the country’s north and central regions. At least 17 civilians were killed this week in ethnic violence in central Mali.
As Malians prepare to vote, here’s what you need to know.
Why is the vote important?
Sunday’s vote marks an important step forward for Mali, a landlocked country in western Africa that is home to almost 19 million people.
Polls will open at 08:00 GMT and close at 17:00 GMT. There are 23,041 polling stations across the country, while a recent audit showed that the number of registered voters stands at 8,461,000.
In advance of the election, fears about violence raised doubts about whether a credible polling process will be able to hold as the country seeks to achieve its first smooth political transition since 2007.
The vote will see a big part of the country’s young population – more than 60 percent of Malians are under the age of 25 – voting for a president for the first time.
Baba Dakono, a researcher from the Institute of Security Studies, expects Sunday’s election to be “very open”.
“For the first time since the advent of democracy in 1991, an election is organised while the incumbent president of the republic is a candidate and whose victory is not assured in advance,” he told Al Jazeera from Mali’s capital, Bamako.
The election campaign has revolved around the key issues of security, economy, job creation and poverty reduction.
Mali ranks 175th, out of 188 countries, on the United Nations Human Development Index for 2016. Last year, it recorded robust economic growth last year, at 5.5 percent, despite the challenging security situation.
Still, financial woes and food insecurity remain, with the country ranking among the poorest in the world despite its vast natural resources – Mali is Africa’s third-largest gold producer.
The next president will be confronted with the task of solving the country’s economic challenges, as well as dealing with the reoccurring security problems.
“The government that was elected in 2013 has not been able to resolve the issue of violence and is still politically weakened,” Yahaya Ibrahim Yahaya, a US-based Mali researcher, told Al Jazeera.
“So, it would be up to the incoming government to deal with the issues,” he added.
In the lead-up to the vote, presidential hopefuls targeted young voters, who are at the forefront of the push for a change in the style of governance.
Ibrahim also noted that the legitimacy of the elections will be at stake as the country hopes to have a free, transparent and peaceful vote where the results will be accepted by all.
“There are places that are not under the control of the government and the question will be whether elections will be held in those places,” Ibrahim said, asking,”what would be the legitimacy of the government if they are not held”?
Last week, Cisse’s party warned of a possible “massive attempt at fraud”, claiming that there were “substantial anomalies” in the electoral register.
Dakono said that authorities should guard against people feeling disenfranchised.
“In a context of inaccessibility of some localities marked by security issues and inadequate road infrastructure, logistical issues remain at the heart of the concerns related to the presidential elections,” he said.
In the 2013 polls, Cisse complained that the election had been marred by fraud before conceding defeat.
Twenty-four candidates have been validated by the country’s electoral commission to run in the elections.
A candidate needs to secure 50 percent-plus-one of the votes cast to secure an outright victory. Otherwise, a second round of voting will be contested by the top two candidates on August 12.
Apart from Keita and Cisse, former minister Mohamed Ali Bathily and businesswoman Djeneba N’Diaye are predicted to be among the top contenders.
Still, Keita and Cisse are widely expected to finish in the top two spots – like in 2013, when they squared off in a runoff.
Keita, 73, inherited a broken nation and still struggles to negotiate peace with northern rebels.
He faces growing political opposition in Bamako, especially among a disaffected youth, and has been under pressure in the wake of armed group attacks and retaliatory ethnic killings in the central-north areas.
Cisse, 68, who contested and lost two previous elections, has attracted a large support base with promises to fix the country’s security problems and end poverty.
Local polls show the vote is too close to call – further raising concerns about whether the outcome will be accepted by the losing sides.
Dakono said the risk of violence related to Mali’s presidential election “is real”.
“This is mainly linked to the lack of a political agreement on the conditions for organising the elections and the feeling of some candidates that they should win this election,” Dakono said.
The elections are being held amid a rise in deadly attacks, including against United Nations soldiers deployed to maintain peace.
The government has also admitted that Malian soldiers have been involved in killings in the country’s vast and troubled central region. The Malian army has in the past been accused by human rights organisations of carrying out extrajudicial killings, abductions and arbitrary arrests against people suspected of sympathising with armed groups.
Meanwhile, armed groups continue to pose a major security threat across Mali’s vast, porous desert borders in Niger, Burkina Faso and beyond.
“Several hyper-localised conflicts with relatively high intensity are currently playing out in the regions of Mopti and Menaka, conflicts which have been accompanied by mass atrocities perpetrated by government forces, ethnic-based militias and militants,” Heni Nsaibia, a researcher at Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, the UN mission in the country – which has more than 11,000 troops and was established in 2013 – is one of the world’s most dangerous peacekeeping operations, with troops and convoys regularly coming under attack from armed groups.
France sent thousands of troops in January 2013 to drive out the rebels from the northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.
But attacks have continued, with more than 140 UN peacekeepers killed since 2013.
Mali’s government has repeatedly said the polls will go ahead as planned, but analysts have raised concerns about the conduct of violence-free polls. This week, the local branch of al-Qaeda warned voters to stay away from the polls.
“The overall security situation is not conducive for elections,” Nsaibia said.
“However, the government has been working with stakeholders to foster conditions favourable for peaceful elections. Indeed, there are concerns that militant groups may cause major disturbances.”