* Election follows more than a year of turmoil and conflict
* Most candidates from political elite, few fresh faces
* Security still a worry, France looking to withdraw troops
By David Lewis and Adama Diarra
BAMAKO, July 25 (Reuters) - When Mali imploded last year -its president ousted by mutinous soldiers and its north seizedby separatist and Islamist rebels - many called for an overhaulof the West African state's flawed democracy, once held up as amodel of stability.
Sunday's presidential election in the Sahel state, whichexperienced turmoil and conflict for over a year, including aFrench-led military intervention from January, provides thechance for a fresh start to rebuild and unite the nation.
With fears of Islamist militant attacks still hanging overit, Mali is rushing to hold the vote under internationalpressure, especially from France, which would like to withdrawthe bulk of its remaining troops if the election goes smoothly.
But those seeking significant political renewal for thenation in the lineup of 27 candidates will be disappointed.
Most, including the frontrunners, are top officials fromprevious administrations, with few fresh younger contenderslikely to challenge the established political elite that waslargely blamed for last year's crisis.
"The president will have five years to reconcile Malians,reform the army and put the economy back on track," said DjibrilKone, a businessman in the capital. "It is an enormous task sowe should be realistic. There will be no magic wand."
France's lightning intervention in January halted adangerous advance southwards by al Qaeda-allied Islamist rebelsand, bolstered by African troops now under a U.N. mandate, hasrestored a measure of peace to the country.
Mali's new leader will still have to hold talks with Tuaregseparatists operating in the north, organise legislativeelections and oversee spending of more than 3 billion euros($3.97 billion) in reconstruction aid promised by donors afterthe vote.
Many at home and abroad are keen to see the back of the rudderless interim government put in place shortly after a March22 coup last year tore up Mali's image as a model democracy in aregion plagued by coups and violently contested votes.
But in this sprawling country that stretches from ungoverneddesert spaces in the north inhabited by nomads to cotton fieldsand gold mines in the south, officials are still scrambling todistribute election cards to some 6.8 million eligible voters.
"It looks like Mali will set the new direction of politicsfor the next 5 to 10 years in a very shoddy election," said oneBamako-based diplomat.
Up to last year and since street protests ended years ofmilitary rule in 1991, Mali had held peaceful votes producingleaders and governments ruling through consensus and patronage,gaining a reputation as an oasis of stability.
But diplomats and many Malians say this facade concealedgovernment mismanagement, widespread corruption and simmeringethnic tensions between the black African majority mostlypopulating the south and Arab and Tuareg groups in the north.
SECOND ROUND SEEN LIKELY
Of the 27 candidates, only four are likely to make a seriousimpact. The two favourites are Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, a primeminister for much of the 1990s, and Soumaila Cisse, a formerfinance minister and ex-head of the West African monetary union.
Modibo Sidibe, another ex-prime minister, and DramaneDembele, candidate for ADEMA, Mali's biggest party, should alsoregister significant numbers of votes.
Unless a candidate can obtain more than 50 percent of thevotes outright on Sunday - many observers see this as unlikely -the election will go to a second round run-off on Aug. 11, whichwill increase the likelihood of political deal-making.
"These people have all belonged to the system for the last20 years," said Ben Essayouti, a teacher and a human rightsactivist from Timbuktu, the famous desert trading post andtourist destination that last year became a Saharan base for alQaeda-linked rebels until French forces drove them out.
"We shouldn't be holding out for a radical change from thiselection," he added.
Blast barriers at embassies and hotels in the dusty capitalBamako reflect fears of extremist militant attacks. But theFrench-led international forces seem to have prevented anyattempts by the Islamist rebels to regroup and counterattack,allowing most of the candidates to campaign across much of thevast nation, which is twice the size of France.
Paris is looking to pull back its presence as a12,600-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission rolls out across thecountry.
However only a handful candidates have made it to Kidal, theremote Tuareg separatist bastion in the north, which issymbolically important even though only 30,000 votes are atstake there.
In Timbuktu, where there is still less electricity each daythan there was under Islamist rule and pockets of rebels lurk inthe desert not far away, residents have flocked to ralliesbrought to life by electric guitars and local dancers.
In the southern capital, Bamako, lamp posts, billboards andbridges are plastered with candidates' posters promising astrong army, thousands of new jobs and food security.
Many candidates have taken to Twitter and Facebook tocampaign, though the impact is likely to be minimal in a countrywhere adult literacy is around 30 percent and less than 3percent of the population have access to the Internet.
THE LEAST BAD OF THE OLD
One candidate, Moussa Mara, a 38-year-oldaccountant-turned-mayor of one of Bamako's communes, has builtup a reputation as a potential leader for the future and enteredthe election race hoping the crisis had forced people to changeold habits.
But he is realistic. "People want change but maybe they arenot ready to sweep all away. There are some concerns that thenext generation is too young so they will choose the least badof the old," he told Reuters.
The vote's success will largely be judged on whether it istrouble-free and how many people take part. One candidate haspulled out complaining about hasty preparations but others havepledged to accept the results. Turnout in past presidentialvotes has never exceeded 40 percent.
"Despite the dishonesty of our politicians we must vote inlarge numbers to put this troubling period of history behindus," said a Timbuktu resident who gave his name only as Maiga. ($1 = 0.7555 euros) (Additional reporting by Joe Penney and El Hadj Djitteye inTimbuktu; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Sonya Hepinstall)
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