- More than two dozen candidates are running, both newcomers and veterans
- Critics have warned about the timing, saying it is too soon after months of instability
- The U.N. urges the nation to ensure those displaced after the coup are included
Malians head to the polls Sunday to elect a president after a coup last year plunged the nation into chaos and left the north in the hands of Islamists.
More than two dozen candidates are on the ballot, a mix of newcomers and veterans, including former government officials and prime ministers.
Analysts have said the balloting is coming too soon after months of instability. Tens of thousands of Malians remain displaced or are living in refugee camps, complicating the election process.
"The election will be an important step on the path to recovery for the West African nation that, over the course of last year, witnessed a military coup d'etat, renewed fighting between government forces and Tuareg rebels, and the seizure of the northern part of the country by radical Islamists," the United Nations said in a news release.
Help for refugees
The U.N. refugee agency, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, urged the nation to ensure those displaced after the coup are included in the electoral process. It is helping neighboring host nations prepare refugees for the vote.
"We are providing refugees with practical information on their right to participate in the elections and we are also providing some transportation," said the refugee agency's spokesman, Adrian Edwards.
The support includes helping refugees register in remote camps and providing interpretation services. The help is available in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania, which have a total of 175,000 refugees, the refugee agency said.
"We are letting people know that personal information and data held by UNHCR is not being shared with the Malian government, and advising on steps to take should people come under pressure from any person or party involved in the election," the spokesman said.
Chaos after coup
Mali plunged into chaos in March last year after a military faction overthrew the president, Amadou Toumani Toure. A group of outraged soldiers accused the government of not providing adequate equipment to battle ethnic Tuareg rebels roaming the vast desert in the north. Disgruntled, the soldiers marched to the palace.
A few hours later, a soldier appeared on state television and said the military was in control of the nation. The coup leader later stepped down and transferred power to a civilian transitional government.
But uncertainty reigned.
Islamists take advantage
Islamic extremists, some with ties to al Qaeda, capitalized on the coup. They toppled the Tuareg tribe roaming in the north, and seized control of Timbuktu and other cities in the region. They carved out a large portion of the region and began instituting their own laws.
They banned music, smoking, drinking and watching sports on television, and destroyed historic tombs and shrines in the north. World leaders feared that the al Qaeda-linked militants would turn the area into a terrorist haven.
French military steps in
Their victories prompted a French-led military campaign in January to flush out the insurgents. France has a close tie to Mali after holding it as a colony from 1898 to 1960.
A successful election would allow France to withdraw some of the troops it put in place to halt Islamist militants from advancing toward the capital, Bamako. French troops and United Nations peacekeepers still patrol the streets of the fragile north.
Contenders for the presidency include veteran politician Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who ran for office in 2002 and 2007. He lost both times, the latest to Toure.
Former prime ministers Modibo Diarra and Modibo Sidibe are also among the candidates.
If no one gets a majority, the two frontrunners will have a runoff next month.