DAKAR/MANGAIZE, Niger (Reuters) - When Talhatou Hallahi Maiga heard that Malian officials had dispatched new ID cards to the desert north in preparation for Sunday's presidential election, he slipped out of a refugee camp in neighboring Niger and went to collect his.
"I'm a patriot. I want to vote and that is why I did not hesitate to travel," he said, referring to a 70 km (45-mile) trip by bush taxi from Mangaize in Niger to Menaka, his hometown in northeastern Mali.
Hundreds of thousands of Malians are sheltering in camps in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania or are scattered within Mali, having fled the north after it was seized by rebels last year.
Most of the displaced are unlikely to be as determined or lucky as Maiga in securing their ID cards, and will thus miss out on Sunday's vote, which Malians hope will mark the end of a turbulent 18 months that saw their country slip into conflict.
A rebellion in the north by a mix of separatist and al Qaeda-linked gunmen was already underway when a military coup in March 2012 caused the frontlines to collapse, accelerating the rebels' sweep towards the south.
It took a French military offensive launched this January to scatter the fighters and to re-establish Bamako's still tenuous control over the north.
Western donors see these elections as vital for Mali to regain stability. The new president will be tasked with leading reconciliation efforts, holding talks with remaining rebels and rebuilding the army.
But some fear technical obstacles in the vote as well as low participation could cast doubt on the winner's legitimacy, sowing the seeds for further conflict.
It is unclear how the expected weak turnout from an estimated 170,000 refugees and 350,000 internally displaced will affect the election outcome, but disenfranchising those who suffered most under the rebels could complicate reconciliation attempts.
"The state is not respecting our rights in this election," said Aziz Cisse, a pastor who fled the Islamist advance on the northern town of Ansongo in April last year and has lived since then in a church near the capital Bamako.
"In June a team registered us and promised to bring us back our (ID) cards but since then we have seen nothing. We cannot vote," he said.
Around 6.8 million Malians are eligible to vote, and officials say they have distributed over 80 percent of the newly printed ID cards needed to take part in the elections.
This, say diplomats and observers, is a feat few expected possible just weeks ago when preparations were running far behind schedule.
But many of those yet to return home to Mali's three northern regions, freed in the French offensive, have not been able to collect their cards.
"I contacted the party I support to see if they will finance my trip from Bamako to Niafunke to collect my card and vote but nothing came of it," said Israel Dembele, a teacher and supporter of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, one of the frontrunners.
WAITING TO VOTE
Complaining of marginalization and boosted by arms and fighters returning from Libya's conflict in 2011, the Tuareg-led rebellion launched last year was the latest in a string of uprisings since Mali's independence from France in 1960.
But this time their revolt was hijacked by better armed and funded Islamist rebels, who went on to impose harsh Islamic law, amputating limbs, banning music and outlawing cigarettes.
Aided by French forces and African troops serving in a new U.N. peacekeeping mission, state control is gradually returning to the northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal.
But alongside peace talks with the Tuareg rebels, the next southern Bamako government will have to rebuild trust with all northern communities, who share the rebels' sense of abandonment even if they did not take up arms.
Of an estimated 75,000 refugees of voter age, just 19,000 sought to vote when lists were drawn up. Only half of these found their names on official registers and, days before the vote, just 630 refugees abroad had received the cards they will need to vote with, according to the United Nations.
UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, has warned that refugee participation cannot be considered "meaningful".
Louis Michel, the European Union's chief observer for the Mali election, said it had been up to refugees to register for the vote and played down numbers being cited by U.N. and Malian officials, saying the figures varied depending on sources.
"From what I can see, the vast majority of Malians will be able to vote. (The refugee vote) is clearly important ... but there are technical limitations as well," he said.
U.N. sources said Malian authorities were looking at allowing refugees to vote with either refugee cards or existing Malian IDs. One day before the vote, nothing had been confirmed.
As a result, many are frustrated.
"All Malians are waiting for a president who will once and for all bring peace," said Aminata Walet, the 55-year-old deputy head of the committee of refugees which helps run the Mangaize camp in Niger.
"Any citizen should be allowed to vote. Unless this happens, we will be disappointed," she added. "We won't go back to Mali unless a proper president is voted in."
(Additional reporting by Adama Diarra in Bamako; Additional reporting and writing by David Lewis; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)
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