The ballot will be the first since a coup in March 2012 that ousted the democratically elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré, just months before he was to step down at the end of his final term in office.
The transitional government lifted a nearly six-month state of emergency on Saturday, marking what officials hope will be a gradual return to normality ahead of the nationwide vote.
But critics of the process argue that it is being rushed and could prove counter-productive by threatening to plunge Mali further into chaos. “The situation in Mali is of great concern,” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in Geneva last week. “It is vital that these elections be credible and peaceful, with an outcome accepted by all Malians.”
The coup that toppled Touré created an opening that allowed groups allied to al Qaeda to seize northern Mali.
A UN peacekeeping mission that counts more than 6,000 West African soldiers is tasked with maintaining security during and after the elections, and will grow to included a total of 11,200 troops, plus 1,400 police, by the end of the year.
France plans to have just 1,000 troops on the ground by the end of the year and has been pushing – along with the US – for a quick election in the hopes of restoring order to the country, which has been overseen by an interim government since the coup.
That deployment allows France to start withdrawing most of the 4,500 troops it sent to Mali in January to stop the Islamists from advancing towards the capital, Bamako, from their northern strongholds.
‘A real mess’
But Mali's election commission has raised doubts over whether it will be ready to hold the election on July 28, as planned, since roughly 500,000 people remain displaced after the conflict and therefore could be unable to vote.
“It’s a real mess,” confided one member of the commission to RFI. “But what can you do? It’s absolutely necessary; the election must happen.” Many observers have similarly expressed concerns over the security challenges in the north.
Malian troops on Friday entered the last rebel stronghold, the key northern city of Kidal, which had been held by the Tuareg separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) since the Islamists were driven out.
The lack of government control in Kidal was seen as a significant obstacle to organising the election. “[But] peace is fragile in Kidal”, a military source based in the city told Reuters on Saturday.
Meanwhile, an EU mission consisting of 90 observers is currently in Mali to evaluate the credibility of the first-round election results. A second round of voting is slated to be held on August 11, if required.
Mali's constitutional court released a list of 26 candidates on Friday, four of whom are former prime ministers: Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, Cheick Modibo Diarra, Modibo Sidibe and Soumana Sacko.
There is one female candidate: Haider Aichata Cisse, a legislator for a constituency near the northern city of Gao.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)