MONROVIA, Liberia – With U.N. tanks and troops standing guard, Liberians waited in long lines Tuesday to vote for the country's first postwar president, who many hope will bring stability to one of Africa's (search)most turbulent countries.
Turnout appeared to be strong, with some voters lining up hours before the polls opened in churches, schools and long-shuttered banks. Many sat on benches or huddled under umbrellas to shelter them from the broiling tropical sun.
Some 1.3 million Liberians had registered to vote at more than 3,000 polling stations.
"I'm voting for a better life, a better leader that can bring peace," said Willie Miller, a 58-year-old unemployed man. "Years ago, the country was good ... it was beautiful. Now we're bad off, barely able to feed ourselves."
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 2003. A transitional government has arranged the vote and 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers are keeping the calm.
While international observers hailed the vote Tuesday, many officials said elections alone won't heal the country's deep wounds. Hundreds of thousands of refugees live in relief camps or squat in buildings abandoned by the government. Eighty percent of the country's 3 million people are unemployed.
"This election is the dawn of a new era in Liberia (search). Today the Liberians are voting for peace," U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer (search) said.
He warned, however: "This is a beginning, not an end point."
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 athletic 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.
Weah said he was confident of victory on Tuesday.
"If this is a free and fair election, definitely we will win it. Because the masses are tired," he told reporters.
Also considered a contender is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated, 66-year old veteran of Liberia's often-deadly politics. She has a long history of work as a government minister and with overseas banks and international organizations.
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.
For voters, though, one qualification trumps all others: to ensure peace after years of war.
"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."
One candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote or a second round run-off between the two largest vote-getters will be held in November. Results were not expected until later in the week.
Liberians also voted for 30 senators and 64 representatives — a bicameral system modeled on that of the United States. Freed slaves from the United States were resettled here before they founded Africa's oldest republic in 1847.
Mineral-rich Liberia, once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, 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.
Taylor — accused of war crimes by a U.N.-backed tribunal in neighboring Sierra Leone for his role in that country's brutal civil war — now lives in exile in Nigeria.