, Monrovia, Liberia, Oct 10 – Liberians turned out in force on Tuesday to choose a successor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in a contest set to complete the country’s first democratic transition of power in more than 70 years.
Queues of people snaked through the streets of the capital Monrovia as voters waited patiently to cast their ballot, capping a campaign hailed for vibrant and violence-free debates and rallies.
The vote is crucial test of Liberia’s stability. Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state, is stepping down after a maximum two six-year terms in which she steered the country away from the trauma of civil war, but, say critics, failed to tackle its poverty.
The country’s 2.18 million registered voters are choosing from a crowded field of 20 presidential candidates — although just one of them is a woman — and will also elect 73 seats in the lower chamber, the House of Representatives.
Frontrunners include footballing icon George Weah, incumbent Vice President Joseph Boakai, longtime opposition figure Charles Brumskine and former Coca-Cola executive Alexander Cummings.
Also waiting in the wings with potentially significant vote shares are telecoms tycoon Benoni Urey and former central bank governor Mills Jones.
Boakai hailed the turnout as he cast his vote close to his residence in Paynesville, a Monrovia suburb.
“I am satisfied that Liberians have turned out in large numbers to elect their leader. Whatever the result I will accept it,” Boakai said.
Weah, surrounded by cheering supporters, declared he would seek to end the divisions that cleave Liberian society and added his “love for this country will make me a good president.”
Back-to-back civil wars, the 2014-16 Ebola crisis and slumped commodity prices have left Liberia among the world’s poorest nations, while corruption remains entrenched.
In Monrovia, the poorest voters seem to overwhelmingly favour Weah, although his choice for vice-president Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, may hit his support in other areas of the country.
The ghosts of Liberia’s bloody past are hard to avoid in this election.
Ex-rebel leader Prince Johnson is also running for president, though a fifth of Liberia’s registered voters are aged 18-22 and are less likely, analysts say, to vote along the ethnic or tribal lines that divided the nation during the war.
– ‘New breed of leaders’ –
The first official results are expected within 48 hours after voting closes at 6:00 pm (1800 GMT). If no candidate wins 50 percent of the presidential vote, then a run-off of the top two contenders will be held on November 7 — an outcome analysts say is a near certainty.
Sirleaf’s Unity Party swept the vote in 2005 and 2011, results that Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) contested in court.
“Don’t vote because of tribalism or religion or all of that. Vote who you think has the capability, has the means to build on my legacy,” Sirleaf said after casting her own ballot.
Boakai, Weah’s most significant rival, has undertaken a delicate balancing act to promote his record in government while distancing himself from Sirleaf to define his own vision.
Martin Saylee, a 28-year-old sociology student and a Boakai voter, told AFP while waiting to cast his ballot at the University of Liberia that the vice president could deliver job creation.
“Boakai is the most qualified. He is the one I believe will take this country to another level,” Saylee told AFP.
Upstart businessman Cummings has eaten into Weah’s support among Liberia’s youth, and his fans were also out in force across polling stations.
“We need a new breed of leaders. Mr Cummings is educated and that is what Liberians need most. Education brings insight,” pastor Fred Slocum told AFP, joining a line hundreds of people long at William V.S. Tubman high school.
– Close scrutiny –
Regardless of the result, the international community is keen to see Liberia’s history of coups, assassinations and exiled dictators shift to a more stable footing after 12 years of peace under Sirleaf.
Hundreds of electoral observers are overseeing the process, from Liberian political parties, civil society groups, the regional body ECOWAS, the African Union, the European Union and the United States.
“This is going to be one of the most observed elections we have seen,” Jordan Ryan, vice president of the Carter Center, an NGO founded by former US president Jimmy Carter, told AFP.