By David Lewis
BAMAKO (Reuters) - A glance at billboards on the scruffy streets of Mali's capital Bamako says much about the difference between the rivals for the presidency in Sunday's runoff vote, and the prospects for peace in the West African country.
Wearing a construction hat with his sleeves rolled up, Soumaila Cisse - a former finance minister portraying himself as an experienced technocrat - promises education reform, an overhaul of the army and a plan to create 500,000 jobs.
Front-runner Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, known universally by his initials IBK, takes a more visceral approach. Wearing white Islamic robes and glancing heavenwards, he pledges to restore Mali's battered dignity.
His nationalist message strikes a powerful chord in a country humbled by a coup and an Islamist takeover of its north last year that obliged former colonial power France to intervene in January.
Malians angry at a political class discredited by years of corruption welcome Keita's promises to break with the past, despite the 68-year-old's long political career in which he served as prime minister and head of the national assembly.
In the riverside capital, pockets of gleaming offices and residential blocks overlook the potholes, piles of rubbish and clogged drains that are the reality for the majority of Malians, who live in poverty despite a decade of economic growth.
"Politicians talk a lot about jobs and the price of rice. But we have heard all that before," said Ibrahim Toure, a driver in Bamako, "IBK talks about honor and that is what we need right now."
Sunday's vote is crucial for triggering the release of some 3 billion euros in aid for post-war reconstruction. Whoever wins also inherits the complex task of concluding a lasting peace deal with northern Tuareg rebels pressing for greater autonomy.
Once seen as a model of democracy in a turbulent region, Mali imploded last year. Soldiers ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure in March, weeks before he was due to step down, amid anger at graft and the passivity of a political regime so bent on consensus it failed to enact desperately needed reform.
The coup in turn opened the door for Tuareg separatist and Islamist rebels to seize Mali's vast desert north - a sparsely populated area the size of Texas where al Qaeda-linked groups went on to impose harsh sharia law.
Cisse, a northerner from a town near the desert city of Timbuktu, has built his coalition around the so-called FDR alliance of political parties and civil society groups set up to counter the coupsters. Yet, in the eyes of many in Mali, that means defending the interest of the discredited political class.
By quickly abandoning the FDR, Keita - a long-time rival and critic of Toure - distanced himself from this elite and earned the tacit blessing of Mali's military.
Having won the first round with 39 percent of votes, against Cisse's 19 percent, and secured the endorsement of 20 other candidates, Keita heads into Sunday's vote the clear favorite, particularly in the populous south.
"Malians have a clear idea of what they want - wiping away the old regime - and IBK was able to sell himself," said one Western diplomat. "He would start with lots of public support, especially here in Bamako, where the music plays."
"EVERYONE VS IBK"
While Keita dominated the southern vote, especially in the Bamako where he secured over 70 percent, Cisse fared better closer to his northern homelands.
After training in France as a computer engineer, Cisse returned home to work in the cotton industry and then spent seven years as minister of finance in the 1990s. He touts his eight years in charge of the West Africa's UEMOA monetary union amongst his credentials for Mali's top job.
He bears the scars of his opposition to the junta, having lacerated his hand and cracked several vertebrae when he fled his house to escape arrest by soldiers shortly after the coup.
"We defended our constitution. The coup was a crime," he told reporters, rejecting accusations that the FDR only served to protect the interests of the political elite.
The FDR's inability to mobilize a broad anti-junta movement reflects how condemnation of the coup by outsiders clashed with popular sentiment at home, where many felt the soldiers had shaken Malians out of a state of political inertia.
While Cisse made lofty pledges to promote Islamic finance, Keita courted Mali's influential moderate Muslim clerics, including the Cherif de Nioro du Sahel, head of a powerful brotherhood. Street hawkers sell badges adorned with photos of the pair.
In a sign of the opportunism that experts say has denied Mali real political opposition despite two decades of multiparty democracy, Dramane Dembele, the third-placed candidate from ADEMA, historically Mali's biggest party and a key member of the FDR coalition, threw his weight behind Keita after the poll.
The second round contains many unknowns. Despite a record turnout, 3 million people did not vote, equivalent to just under half the electorate. More than 400,000 who did spoiled their ballots but may get it right next time.
Keita's backers say he has the hardline credentials to restore order to a divided nation. They cite his readiness to take on striking students when prime minister in the 1990s and his opposition to a 2006 peace deal with Tuareg rebels which critics say restricted the army's sway over the north.
But his nationalist stance could pose a dilemma for the future. Keita's program includes a vague promise to review the mining code in Africa's No. 3 gold miner that has unsettled some in the private sector, which is seen as backing Cisse.
Whoever wins will have to follow through on a June ceasefire deal with Tuareg separatists that commits the new government to open political talks within 60 days of taking office.
In Kidal, a Tuareg stronghold which has been the cradle of successive uprisings, only 5,000 of the 35,000 registered voters cast their ballots. Only a tiny fraction of the 70,0000 refugees of voting age in camps abroad took part in the election.
Leaders of the Tuareg separatist MNLA have already warned of renewed conflict if their demands for autonomy for their desert homeland, which they dub Azawad, are not met.
Yet any concessions would anger Keita's core constituency in the south where frustration runs high with the Tuaregs, who many regard as responsible for triggering last year's crisis.
"The Tuaregs never had a kingdom. This Azawad of theirs never existed," said respected author Seydou Badian Kouyate, who took part in independence negotiations with France and wrote the words of the national anthem.
(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Sonya Hepinstall)