AFTER decades of dictatorship, the semi-desert West African Republic of Mali and its 8 million people are preparing for the country's first free elections.
Following months of strikes and demonstrations against the 23-year dictatorial rule of President Moussa Traore, the military last March seized control to stop killings that occurred during four days of brutal repression by government security forces.
An estimated 150 to 300 persons, mostly civilians, died in the four days of clashes.
Now, nearly a year later, Lt. Col. Amadou Toumani Toure, the Army officer who led the takeover, says he is ready to hand over power to the winners of Mali's first democratic elections in its 31 years of independence. National Assembly elections are scheduled for Feb. 23, with more than 1,100 candidates from 21 parties running for 116 seats.
Presidential elections are expected to follow the legislative elections this spring, and presidential candidates from different parties already are stumping for votes, shaking hands, listening to voters' concerns, and submitting to endless questions.
Candidates in this former French colony, approximately the size of Texas and California combined, also are sharpening their oratory - some promising to build more roads, others appealing for the protection of democratic reforms.
One leading presidential candidate, Alfa Omar Konare, a professor of history, sits barefooted in the mat-floored homes of Muslim leaders.
Mr. Konare's Alliance for a Democratic Mali (ADEMA) reportedly made the strongest national showing in municipal elections Jan. 12. He depends almost entirely on personal appearances, not direct mailings or television, to reach voters. In a country where just 18 percent of the people are literate and the government controls the only TV station, this strategy makes sense.