By David Lewis and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - When Mali imploded last year - its president ousted by mutinous soldiers and its north seized by separatist and Islamist rebels - many called for an overhaul of the West African state's flawed democracy, once held up as a model of stability.
Sunday's presidential election in the Sahel state, which experienced turmoil and conflict for over a year, including a French-led military intervention from January, provides the chance for a fresh start to rebuild and unite the nation.
With fears of Islamist militant attacks still hanging over it, Mali is rushing to hold the vote under international pressure, especially from France, which would like to withdraw the bulk of its remaining troops if the election goes smoothly.
But those seeking significant political renewal for the nation in the lineup of 27 candidates will be disappointed.
Most, including the frontrunners, are top officials from previous administrations, with few fresh younger contenders likely to challenge the established political elite that was largely blamed for last year's crisis.
"The president will have five years to reconcile Malians, reform the army and put the economy back on track," said Djibril Kone, a businessman in the capital. "It is an enormous task so we should be realistic. There will be no magic wand."
France's lightning intervention in January halted a dangerous advance southwards by al Qaeda-allied Islamist rebels and, bolstered by African troops now under a U.N. mandate, has restored a measure of peace to the country.
Mali's new leader will still have to hold talks with Tuareg separatists operating in the north, organize legislative elections and oversee spending of more than 3 billion euros ($3.97 billion) in reconstruction aid promised by donors after the vote.
Many at home and abroad are keen to see the back of the rudderless interim government put in place shortly after a March 22 coup last year tore up Mali's image as a model democracy in a region plagued by coups and violently contested votes.
But in this sprawling country that stretches from ungoverned desert spaces in the north inhabited by nomads to cotton fields and gold mines in the south, officials are still scrambling to distribute election cards to some 6.8 million eligible voters.
"It looks like Mali will set the new direction of politics for the next 5 to 10 years in a very shoddy election," said one Bamako-based diplomat.
Up to last year and since street protests ended years of military rule in 1991, Mali had held peaceful votes producing leaders and governments ruling through consensus and patronage, gaining a reputation as an oasis of stability.
But diplomats and many Malians say this facade concealed government mismanagement, widespread corruption and simmering ethnic tensions between the black African majority mostly populating the south and Arab and Tuareg groups in the north.
SECOND ROUND SEEN LIKELY
Of the 27 candidates, only four are likely to make a serious impact. The two favorites are Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a prime minister for much of the 1990s, and Soumaila Cisse, a former finance minister and ex-head of the West African monetary union.
Modibo Sidibe, another ex-prime minister, and Dramane Dembele, candidate for ADEMA, Mali's biggest party, should also register significant numbers of votes.
Unless a candidate can obtain more than 50 percent of the votes outright on Sunday - many observers see this as unlikely - the election will go to a second round run-off on August 11, which will increase the likelihood of political deal-making.
"These people have all belonged to the system for the last 20 years," said Ben Essayouti, a teacher and a human rights activist from Timbuktu, the famous desert trading post and tourist destination that last year became a Saharan base for al Qaeda-linked rebels until French forces drove them out.
"We shouldn't be holding out for a radical change from this election," he added.
Blast barriers at embassies and hotels in the dusty capital Bamako reflect fears of extremist militant attacks. But the French-led international forces seem to have prevented any attempts by the Islamist rebels to regroup and counterattack, allowing most of the candidates to campaign across much of the vast nation, which is twice the size of France.
Paris is looking to pull back its presence as a 12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission rolls out across the country.
However only a handful candidates have made it to Kidal, the remote Tuareg separatist bastion in the north, which is symbolically important even though only 30,000 votes are at stake there.
In Timbuktu, where there is still less electricity each day than there was under Islamist rule and pockets of rebels lurk in the desert not far away, residents have flocked to rallies brought to life by electric guitars and local dancers.
In the southern capital, Bamako, lamp posts, billboards and bridges are plastered with candidates' posters promising a strong army, thousands of new jobs and food security.
Many candidates have taken to Twitter and Facebook to campaign, though the impact is likely to be minimal in a country where adult literacy is around 30 percent and less than 3 percent of the population have access to the Internet.
THE LEAST BAD OF THE OLD
One candidate, Moussa Mara, a 38-year-old accountant-turned-mayor of one of Bamako's communes, has built up a reputation as a potential leader for the future and entered the election race hoping the crisis had forced people to change old habits.
But he is realistic. "People want change but maybe they are not ready to sweep all away. There are some concerns that the next generation is too young so they will choose the least bad of the old," he told Reuters.
The vote's success will largely be judged on whether it is trouble-free and how many people take part. One candidate has pulled out complaining about hasty preparations but others have pledged to accept the results. Turnout in past presidential votes has never exceeded 40 percent.
"Despite the dishonesty of our politicians we must vote in large numbers to put this troubling period of history behind us," said a Timbuktu resident who gave his name only as Maiga.
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(Additional reporting by Joe Penney and El Hadj Djitteye in Timbuktu; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Sonya Hepinstall)