Liberians vote in first presidential election since civil war

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

MONROVIA, Liberia -- Liberians stood in long lines under a broiling sun to vote Tuesday as this West African nation held its first presidential elections since the end of a civil war in 2003.

At one station, people started lining up at 2 a.m., six hours before polls opened.

"We need a president who can provide for our needs. Look around, we have no electrical current, no clean drinking water, no health clinics," said 42-year-old civil servant Joseph Parhmilnee.

Twenty-two candidates are vying for the top job in Liberia, in tatters after 14 years of nearly continuous civil war that ended with a peace deal in August 2003. A transitional government has arranged the vote and 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers are keeping the calm.

Candidates are promising to keep the peace, while rebuilding government-run water and electricity plants and creating jobs in a country where less than a quarter of the population is employed.

"We want to be free, with no more war. The new president must take care of us," said Sarah Kanga, a 43-year old market trader and mother of nine. "We'll work for ourselves, but if the country is free, then the money will come."

While no polling data exist, many believe the front-runner is former international soccer phenomenon George Weah, 40, whose rise from a Monrovia slum to soccer stardom has captivated much of Liberia's youth -- including many among the 100,000 demobilized fighters who raped, pillaged and murdered during the civil war.

But Weah's critics say he has neither the education nor the management experience to govern Liberia's 3 million people.

Also drawing large crowds at rallies is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated, 66-year old veteran of Liberia's often-deadly politics.

Her detractors say she's part of a political class that has only led to Liberia's ruination and needs to be swept aside. If voted into office, her campaign says she would become Africa's first elected female president.

Some 400 international observers and 900 local monitors fanned out across Liberia for Tuesday's vote. The U.S. ambassador to Liberia and human-rights workers have said the country is on track for free and fair elections after a two-month campaign marked by calm.

Former President Jimmy Carter hailed Liberians' dedication to nonviolence and democratic ideals on Monday.

Liberians will also select 30 senators and 64 representatives -- a bicameral system modeled on that of the United States, from where freed slaves were resettled before they founded Africa's oldest republic in 1847.

Some 1.3 million Liberians have registered to vote at over 3,000 polling stations.

Liberia fell into civil war in 1989 when ex-President Charles Taylor, then a warlord, launched his insurgency. Taylor won elections during an interlude in fighting in 1997, but another rebellion broke out in 2000. Under heavy international pressure, Taylor stepped down and left the country in 2003, and a peace deal was quickly signed.

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