Mali lauded for successful election
There were no reports of violence in Sunday's poll despite threats to 'strike' polling stations by armed Islamists who had occupied northern Mali before being ousted in January by a French-led military occupation.
The European Union's observation mission reported that turnout was around 50 percent, putting paid to pessimism over the vote's viability.
President Francois Hollande of former colonial power France hailed the ballot for being 'marked by a good turnout and an absence of any major incident'.
'Congratulations are in order that the Mali elections passed off well… For France, it is a great success,' said his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
France had a lot riding on a successful election, having pressed for a quick vote which would allow Mali to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent in to stop the Islamists from advancing towards the capital Bamako.
Even in the northern regional capital of Kidal, a stronghold of Mali's Tuareg rebellion and the scene of recent deadly ethnic violence, voters cast their ballots in an atmosphere of calm, although the turnout was thought to have been low.
'I'm a happy man,' said regional governor Adama Kamissoko. 'We rose to the challenge of voting in Kidal, a zone of insecurity where almost everyone is armed, without incident, without a single shot, and no one could have imagined that a few weeks ago.'
Louis Michel, the head of the 100-strong European Union election observation mission who visited Kidal for a few hours during voting, praised the 'real passion' of voters as he announced an initial turnout estimate of 50 percent.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the high attendance contradicted 'the doomsayers who had suggested that the Malians were not interested in the democratic process'.
Sunday's vote was the first since an uprising by Tuareg separatists sparked a military coup in March last year which toppled democratically elected president Amadou Toumani Toure, plunging Mali into a political crisis which opened the way for Islamists to occupy the vast desert north for 10 months.
The authorities have until the end of Friday to announce the results, although preliminary findings collated by journalists in polling stations gave a clear early lead to former premier Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, sparking celebrations among his supporters.
The unofficial projections based on the accounts of reporters watching counts across the country suggest that 69-year-old Keita, known universally as IBK, could even cause an upset and win the first-round vote outright.
Although there are 27 candidates, analysts have characterised the election as a two-horse race, with Keita a frontrunner alongside Soumaila Cisse, 63, a former finance minister and erstwhile chairman of the Commission of the West African Economic and Monetary Union.
Thousands of Keita's supporters massed at his party headquarters in Bamako overnight as news of his apparent lead was broadcast on local radio, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.
'IBK - the man we need,' they chanted. One supporter shouted: 'It is the people who have spoken!'
A large crowd also gathered at Keita's home and convoys of cars circulated, horns blaring in celebration at what his supporters were calling victory.
If no candidate obtains an absolute majority, a second-round run-off between the two top vote-getters will take place on August 11.