By Tiemoko Diallo and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO (Reuters) - Malians trickled to the polls amid high security for a legislative ballot on Sunday, in the second set of elections since France intervened this year to oust al Qaeda-linked militants from the country's north.
The West African country has suffered a surge in Islamist violence since President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita was elected in August in polls that marked a return to democracy after a March 2012 coup. The military putsch plunged Mali into chaos and allowed Islamists to seize its desert north.
Polls opened at 3 a.m. ET. Some 6.7 million people were registered to cast their vote in 25,000 bureaux across the nation twice the size of France.
Initial turnout appeared much lower than in August's vote. Voting stations were due to remain open until 1 p.m. ET.
Malian soldiers, French troops and U.N. peacekeepers protected voting stations in the north following a resurgence of Islamist violence. Gao, the largest city in northern Mali, was targeted in a rocket attack on Thursday by suspected Islamists.
The election of a new parliament will complete the democratic transition in the wake of last year's coup. Donors have pledged $3.25 billion to rebuild the impoverished country and develop its lawless desert north.
"I came to vote because without a parliament there are no laws, there is no democracy," said Bakary Berthe, 52, the first person to vote in the Banakabougou neighborhood of Bamako. "I voted without any problems. It was transparent."
Unlike the presidential elections, when long lines snaked outside voting stations, Berthe was the only voter waiting to cast his ballot early on Sunday.
IBK EXPECTED TO WIN
Some 1,087 candidates from 410 electoral lists will compete for the 147 seats in the national assembly. A second round will be held on December 15 in constituencies where there is no majority winner on Sunday.
Political analysts expected Keita, commonly known by his initials IBK, and his allies to comfortably win the election after he swept the August 11 presidential runoff by a landslide.
"The aim of my vote is to give a comfortable majority to the president and his allies," said Boubacar Ouedrago, a butcher in Bamako. "IBK needs this majority to complete his mission."
His losing presidential rival, Soumaila Cisse, at the head of a coalition of parties, aims to secure the post of parliamentary speaker and has pledged to present Keita with a real opposition, according to sources close to him.
The unity governments of former president Amadou Toumani Toure, which curtailed political debate and accountability, have been blamed for damaging faith in Mali's political system, thereby encouraging the 2012 coup.
Keita's RPM party was the only one on the electoral list in the far north region of Kidal, where it has enlisted the political support of some of the leaders of last year's uprising. Opposition candidates say it has been too dangerous to campaign there.
Some 100 supporters of separatist parties staged a march in Kidal's dusty center to protest against the elections but were prevented from entering voting stations by members of the U.N. peacekeeping mission, residents said.
France, which has more than 2,000 troops stationed in Mali, aims to reduce its military presence to 1,000 by February as it hands security responsibilities to the Malian army and the U.N. force. The U.N. mission, launched in July, is still at roughly half its 12,600 planned strength.
(Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Sandra Maler)