Opposition Leader Ernest Bai Koroma Wins Sierra Leone Presidency

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Sierra Leone's battle-weary citizens have chosen an opposition leader as their next president — voting against the party that ushered the country out of a devastating war in 2002 and for the promise of less corruption and more jobs.

Ernest Bai Koroma won the country's run-off vote with 55 percent of 1.7 million ballots cast, compared with 45 percent for the ruling party candidate, Vice President Solomon Berewa, the election commission chief said Monday.

Thousands of Koroma's supporters wearing red T-shirts and hats clogged the streets of the capital city of Freetown, singing and dancing through a heavy midday downpour.

Ruling party officials decried the outcome, but did not say if they would reject the results.

"It is part of the international conspiracy, but they will not get away with it," Jacob Jusu Saffa, secretary general of the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party, said in a radio broadcast.

Neither party officials nor Berewa's spokespeople could be reached for further comment.

Although both parties complained of localized fraud and misconduct at some polling stations, international observers said the poll went off generally smoothly and without major problems that would have invalidated the outcome.

The election, the first presidential vote since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew two years ago, was seen as a test of whether the West African country has emerged from the chaos wrought by a decade-long war. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the fighting, and rebels hacked off the limbs of countless others.

Peace was re-established in diamond-rich Sierra Leone with the help of U.N. forces in 2002, but most of its residents remain poor and unemployed, and corruption is rampant.

Koroma, 54, promised to root out corruption and create economic opportunities. A former insurance company executive, he also promised to run the government with the efficiency of a business, quickly rebuilding roads and infrastructure.

"We look forward to having good roads, regular electricity and water supply, quality and affordable education for our children," said Alieu Mansaray, an accountant and Koroma supporter.

About 2.6 million of Sierra Leone's 5 million people registered to vote in the election. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was barred by term limits from running for a third five-year term.

The governing party candidate was considered the front-runner before the first round of voting on Aug. 11. But Koroma won 44 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 38 percent for Berewa. The margin was not large enough for him to win outright, forcing a runoff.

Koroma's win solidifies the return of his All People's Congress to power for the first time since being ousted in a 1992 coup. The APC also won the majority of legislative seats in last month's vote.

Some in the country still see the party that ruled Sierra Leone from 1967 to 1992 as symbolic of the strong-arm statesmanship that helped foment discontent and fuel rebellion. The APC instituted a one-party state in 1978, banning all other political parties for more than a decade until shortly before it was overthrown.

The coup was led by a group of young military officers who promised to rein in abuses of power and put down a growing rebellion in the east. Instead, the fighting worsened and Sierra Leone was plunged into years of civil war.

U.N. and British forces defeated the rebellion, and a U.N. force stayed on, swelling to 17,500 troops before departing in December 2005. British troops have helped train a new 17,500-strong army, which, together with 9,500 police, is responsible for national security.