By David Lewis and Adama Diarra
DAKAR/GAO, Mali (Reuters) - Mali's presidential hopefuls kicked off campaigning this week for a July 28 election intended to draw a line under a coup and an Islamist uprising, despite concerns that a rushed poll may sow the seeds of future strife.
France, which sent 3,000 troops to Mali in January to halt an offensive by al Qaeda-linked Islamists, has pressed hard for a July poll, eager to see an elected government in place to negotiate with Tuareg rebels in the north and to reform a dysfunctional state that imploded last year.
From Mali's northern desert to its leafy southern riverside towns, the candidates promised voters a stronger army, an end to graft and poverty and the reconciliation of a divided nation as they doled out T-shirts at rallies and houses, from mini-buses and under mango trees emblazoned with posters.
Western donors hope the election will lay the foundations for rebuilding a nation once seen as a model of democracy in turbulent West Africa. The French troops will remain in Mali to help ensure a peaceful vote.
Yet millions of voting cards must still be dispatched across a vast territory twice the size of France. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the conflict and many more are still missing from outdated voter lists.
"The election risks being marred by such technical shortcomings, and with such a low rate of participation, that it could result in the election of a president deprived of the legitimacy necessary to lead a confused and weakened country back to stability and development," think tank International Crisis Group said in an editorial in France's Le Figaro paper.
OSIWA, a foundation funded by financier George Soros to promote democracy in West Africa, echoed these concerns. Both groups have called for a delay to address technical problems and avoid a destabilizing challenge to the election result.
VOTE "WON'T BE PERFECT"
The government, under pressure from Paris, insists pressing ahead with the vote is the only way to kick-start a recovery.
"The delay called for by some will not resolve the technical problems," said President Dioncounda Traore, who has headed a shaky interim administration since the March 2012 coup.
"The election will not be perfect, not least as this is a country emerging from a crisis ... but I am deeply convinced that we can organize free and fair elections on July 28."
In what is seen as a wide open race, 28 candidates are contesting the presidency. Though four of them have previously served as prime minister, there is no government-backed candidate and a run-off will take place on August 11 if no-one wins an outright majority in the first round.
All candidates promise to revamp an army that received years of U.S. training but then in March 2012 toppled the president weeks before he was due to step down. It then folded in the face of an offensive by a mix of separatist and Islamist rebels.
Other promises include fixing a broken education system and revising mining contracts in one of Africa's top gold producers.
"Mali, our pride" read one banner in the northern town of Gao, reflecting efforts to reunite a battered nation.
Mali's interior ministry, which is organizing the vote, has said the poll can be held on time. But the election commission, which supervises the process, has warned of problems.
By July 5, only a third of Mali's 6.9 million potential voters had received voting cards, a ministry spokesman said.
The United Nations estimates more than 525,000 Malians are either internally displaced or living abroad as refugees.
The authorities plan to allow voting in camps but it is unclear whether cards will be delivered on time, potentially disenfranchising thousands of people in the north, the heart of the rebellion.
Hundreds of thousands more may miss the ballot as they turned 18 after voter identification started in 2009.
The governor of Kidal, the sparsely populated northern region that has been the birthplace of successive revolts, returned on Thursday promising elections would go ahead but he only spent hours there as rebels still occupy his offices.
"JUST GET ON WITH IT"
Tiebile Drame, a presidential hopeful and the government's chief negotiator in a recent ceasefire deal with the Tuareg rebels, has launched a court case to delay the vote, saying it would be illegal in current circumstances.
But France, the former colonial power whose fleet of planes and helicopters will be central to election logistics, has said the deadline is "very important".
The United States, which has seen Mali as a key security partner in the region, cannot restart aid frozen since the coup until the vote takes place.
"People are content to push ahead," said one Bamako-based diplomat. "Given the context and it being Mali, it seems as good as we can hope for. It might not be great but it will happen."
Voting will coincide with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and must also overcome a tradition of voter apathy in Mali where turnout in a presidential poll has never exceeded 40 percent.
"The elections are probably going to be the least well prepared but the consequences of delaying them could be even worse," said Mamadou Konate, a lawyer.
"The politicians will have to just get on with it."
(Additional reporting by Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako and Nicholas Vinocur in Paris; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Gareth Jones)