A young man glues campaign posters for Ibrahim Boubacar Keita on top of a pair posters for rival Dramane Dembele in Gao, Mali. (Rebecca Blackwell/Associated Press)

Thousands of Malians went to the polls Sunday in the country’s first presidential election since a military coup last year, a vote that could have a deep impact on the future of democracy and militancy in, as well as American aid to, this strategic West African nation.

Once considered one of the continent’s most politically stable nations, Mali crumbled early last year when a separatist Tuareg rebellion helped trigger a military coup that destabilized the government. The rebels, joined by radical Islamists and fighters from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the terror network’s West and North African branch, swiftly overran northern Mali, an area the size of France. The Islamists subsequently pushed the Tuareg rebels out and seized control of major northern cities, imposing strict sharia laws marked by public amputations and stonings.

In January, a French military intervention drove the Islamists out of their strongholds, paving the way for Sunday’s elections, which are seen as vital to reuniting and stabilizing the country after months of political turmoil. Nearly half of Mali’s 15 million people have registered to vote in 21,000 polling stations around the country. Voters will select a president from a list of 27 candidates, who include three former prime ministers. If no clear winner emerges, a second round of voting is scheduled for Aug. 11.

Much is at stake for Mali. Since the military coup, American military assistance has been suspended because U.S. laws prevent aid to any country whose democratically elected government has been toppled by the military. In interviews earlier this year, Malian military commanders said they viewed U.S. military aid as essential to fight the lingering threats posed by the militants.

The Obama administration remains concerned that extremists might use northern Mali to stage attacks against U.S. interests or its allies in the region. AQIM is linked to the assault on the Benghazi consulate that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September, the January raid on a natural gas complex in Algeria that killed dozens of oil workers, including three Americans, and the May suicide bombings in Niger on an army barracks and a French-operated uranium mine that killed at least 20 people.

Many analysts have questioned whether Mali is ready to hold an election. Hundreds of thousands of people in the north remain displaced by the conflict, and are unlikely to vote, raising questions of the legitimacy of the next president. One candidate pulled out last week over technical glitches in the run-up to Sunday’s vote and uncertainty whether there could be a free and fair vote in certain northern areas.

The militants still remain a threat in northern Mali, staging guerilla attacks on French and African troops, who secured the major cities. They have vowed to attack polling stations, protected by United Nations peacekeepers as part of a U.N. stabilization force known by its acronym, MINUSMA, which integrated more than 6,000 West African soldiers into its ranks and is expected to swell to more than 11,000 troops by the end of the year.

Little has been done to address the demands of the Tuareg minority for autonomy, one of the key underlying reasons that triggered the coup. Those tensions are emerging again.

In the northern town of Kidal, the cradle of last year’s rebellion, Tuareg separatists have reasserted their authority, occupying the town for the past five months. A cease-fire pact earlier this month permitted the Malian army to provide security, allowing for elections. Still, the town is tense. Clashes between the lighter-skinned Tuaregs and black Africans erupted last week, leaving four people dead, while five polling officials were kidnapped by gunmen in a town north of Kidal. Tuareg rebels still control some government buildings in Kidal.

The separatists want to create a new Tuareg homeland, named Azawad. According to the Associated Press, turnout was low in Kidal on Sunday morning, as rebels sped past polling stations on motorcycles, yelling, “Yes to Azawad, no to Mali.” There have also been technical problems that could prevent many people from voting.

Both United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Mali’s interim leader, Dioncounda Traore, have publicly acknowledged that the vote may be “imperfect.” But on Friday, Louis Michel, the head of the European Union observer mission, told reporters in Bamako, the Malian capital, that the elections could be credible because 85 percent of voter cards had been distributed.

“I believe that these elections can take place in a context and in conditions that are acceptable and do not allow for a distortion or an abuse of the result,” Michel told reporters. “I really think the personality who emerges during this election will have more than enough legitimacy.”

Others are not convinced.

“The timetable has been rushed for the convenience of western interests on the assumption that any government that emerges — however imperfect — will be better than the enfeebled transitional status quo,” read an editorial in the Financial Times newspaper. “But there is far more at stake than just the legitimacy of the state. While French troops may have succeeded in pushing back Islamists linked to al-Qaeda, the country’s 7,200km border is as porous as ever to guns and drug smugglers, and scattered terrorist groups are waiting for an opportunity to re-emerge.”