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Mali's First Democratic Vote Yields New President Facing Old Issues

AFRICA'S newest democratically elected president, this time in the West African state of Mali, faces some of the same demands from unions and students that helped topple former Malian dictator Moussa Traore.

With most votes counted from Mali's presidential runoff on April 26, Alfa Omar Konare, a historian with a booming voice who made few campaign promises, has captured 70 percent of the vote.

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The runner-up in the election, Tieoule Mamadou Konate, is alleging some voter fraud. But a Western diplomat reached April 28 in Bamako, Mali's capital, said the election appeared to have been a fair one.

"This is a case where an election went extremely well," the diplomat said.

The vote marked Mali's first democratic election since it gained independence from France in 1960.

In March 1991, Mr. Traore was overthrown by Lt. Col. Amadou Tumani Toure, after months or strikes and demonstrations against 23 years of dictatorial rule. In the last month of protests, Traors security forces killed an estimated 150 to 300 civilians in an attempt to quell riots and demands for the president's resignation.

Among those demonstrating against Traore were unions demanding more pay for their members and students insisting on larger scholarships. Both groups are making the same demands again.

A general strike by a confederation of Malian unions is planned for May 8, and students have already begun renewing their demands for more financial aid, demands which the current military government has been both unwilling and unable to meet.

The Western diplomat in Bamako said he expects Colonel Toure to turn over power in June, which gives the military government more time to negotiate with unions and students.

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But demands from both groups are likely to spill over onto Konare's plate the moment he takes office, raising the question as to whether the new government can meet the demands of the public.

"The real question is going to be not so much the shift away from authoritarian regimes, but whether or not it's going to be possible to sustain [the shift]," says Michael Clough, senior Africa fellow at the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York.

But Mr. Clough says that as the number of African countries with democratic governments increases, "there is sort of a cumulative effect ... a momentum" toward democracy.

As this happens, there will be more pressure against nations trying to buck or reverse the trend. Clough cites Peru and the international reaction against the recent use of the military by President Alberto Fujimori to at least temporarily sidetrack democracy in the name of law and order.

Konare himself, in a Monitor interview in January, was deeply concerned he might win by too wide a margin, encouraging members of other parties to jump to his party, the Alliance for a Democratic Mali.

"That would be a catastrophe," Konare said. "We fought for multipartyism. There must be several parties."

Konare promised that if he won, he would name other party members to his Cabinet. He even hinted that, if elected, he might name his prime minister from another party, to help establish a "national government of unity."

But foremost in Mali's new democracy, Konare stressed repeatedly in the interview, is the need for a "free press and independent judiciary. People must express themselves, give their opinions."

In contrast to some candidates, he made few specific promises in light of Mali's extreme poverty.

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