Mali presidential run-off candidates woo also-rans
Mali's presidential favourite received surprise backing from a rival on Saturday ahead of a run-off vote in its first polls since a coup toppled one of west Africa's most stable democracies.
As the two main candidates lobbied for support from the also-rans, frontrunner Ibrahim Boubacar Keita won a pivotal boost with the endorsement of third-placed candidate Dramane Dembele.
Former prime minister Keita faces rival Soumaila Cisse in a second round of voting on August 11 in an election seen as crucial to the country's recovery from more than 18 months of crippling political crisis.
While Keita placed almost 20 percentage points clear of Cisse with 39.2 percent, he failed to secure an outright majority in a crowded field of 27 hopefuls.
His surprise backer Dembele's 9.6 percent share could push him closer to victory.
Dembele broke ranks with his Adema party -- the largest political grouping in Mali which was supporting the runner-up Cisse -- to call on his followers to back the frontrunner.
He said Saturday he believed Keita shared Adema's socialist values.
"My party did not consult me before endorsing Soumaila Cisse... I met IBK yesterday and we talked," Dembele told a news conference in Bamako.
The support of the remaining first round candidates -- who accounted for more than a quarter of the vote -- is seen as crucial and observers believe they may be asked to form an "anyone but IBK" coalition to keep 68-year-old Keita out of office.
Adema's acting president Iba N'Diaye shrugged off Dembele's announcement, saying it would not change the party's stance.
"Dembele's decision is for him alone. It's the party that decides. Our activists will follow the party line to vote for Soumaila Cisse," he said.
A credible presidential election is seen as key to Mali's recovery after the March 22, 2012 military coup which overthrew Amadou Toumani Toure, plunging the impverished nation into political crisis and leading to an Islamist insurgency.
As hardline Al-Qaeda allies took control of the country's vast desert north, threatening to march on the capital Bamako, former colonial power France launched a military offensive in January which drove out the Islamists.
Cisse accused the government Friday of allowing widespread fraud in the first round, after it emerged that more than 400,000 ballot papers had been spoiled out of some 3.5 million votes cast.
"The high turnout on July 28 should not distract from the unpreparedness, poor organisation and fraud that have characterised the first round of the presidential election," he told a news conference in Bamako.
The 63-year-old said he was "astonished" by the high number of spoiled ballots and would be asking Mali's constitutional court to investigate.
With six days before the campaign period closes ahead of the run-off, Keita called on his Twitter account for "an even greater mobilisation for a clean, clear vote for the candidate of change".
Acting president Dioncounda Traore and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have acknowledged that the election process may end up being "imperfect" in a country with 500,000 citizens displaced by conflict, but have urged Malians to respect the outcome.
Critics have argued that the impoverished and deeply-divided nation rushed to the polls under pressure from the international community and risked a botched election that could do more harm than good.
But the international community has praised Mali for running a transparent and peaceful election with an unexpected turnout of 51.5 percent in a country where participation has never previously exceeded 38 percent.
Despite heavy security during voting amid fears that Islamists would attack polling stations, no serious incidents were reported on election day.