MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberians voted on Tuesday in an election expected to mark the first democratic transfer of power in over seven decades in a country haunted by a civil war that ended nearly 15 years ago.
Outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, is praised for maintaining peace since taking over after the end of the West African country’s 14-year conflict in which child fighters were used.
Liberia’s policy of prioritising reconciliation over justice, however, has meant that prominent figures responsible for the violence that killed a quarter of a million people are still present on the political landscape.
There is no clear frontrunner but Prince Johnson, a former rebel leader who finished third in the last election in 2011, is among 20 candidates on the ballot.
The ex-wife of warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, now imprisoned in the UK for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone, is the running mate of another favourite: former soccer star George Weah.
“I am just voting for peace. We want peace right now,” said James Marthics, a voter in Paynesville, a suburb of the capital Monrovia.
Residents queued before dawn at polling stations in Monrovia, some bringing small wooden chairs with them, and formed queues as vendors sold them soft drinks and palm wine.
Materials including ballot boxes arrived late in some locations and some people struggled to find their names on voter rolls. State broadcaster ELBC reported a party chair in Lofa County was detained for distributing money to voters.
Elections commission head Jerome Korkoya said some individuals were arrested for trying to vote more than once, but he said voting went smoothly overall.
Liberia is Africa’s oldest modern republic. It was founded by freed U.S. slaves in 1847 but its last democratic power transfer dates back to 1943.
Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president, won a surprise victory in 2005 following a post-war transition. She was re-elected in 2011 but is barred from seeking another term.
Among the favourites to replace her is Vice President Joseph Nyuma Boakai.
Weah, who has won FIFA’s world player of the year, was greeted at his polling station by supporters in football shirts. He came second to Johnson Sirleaf in 2005.
Ex-rebel leader Johnson won around 12 percent of the vote in 2011. A widely-circulated video showed him sipping a beer as he directed the torture of President Samuel Doe shortly before his murder in 1990.
Ballot counting started soon after polls officially closed at 6 p.m. (1800 GMT), though voting continued in some areas where there had been delays.
Results are expected to begin arriving later this week. But most analysts think it will be difficult for any single candidate to win an outright majority on Tuesday, raising the likelihood of a run-off election next month.
Few believe there is a real risk of a return to war but in a national address on Monday Johnson Sirleaf called for peace.
Though held in high esteem internationally, many Liberians, who call her simply “Ellen”, say they are disappointed she has not achieved more in her 12 years in office.
Liberia is currently 177th out of 188 countries ranked by the U.N. human development index, and Johnson Sirleaf has faced accusations of nepotism and failing to crack down on corruption.
Writing by Emma Farge and Joe Bavier; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg