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Voting for president calm in Sierra Leone

- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 21, 2012

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Sierra Leone carried out a largely peaceful and well-conducted vote despite isolated reports of money changing hands and polling stations marred by bees and lack of light, observers said this week.

Saturday's vote was the third presidential election since the end of the West African country's brutal 11-year civil war that ended in 2002, and analysts say it is a key test of how far the nation has come.

While local radio stations have begun airing unofficial results from some polling stations, the National Electoral Commission has yet to announce whether the vote will go to a second round.

Incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma must get 55 percent of the ballots cast or he will face his main opponent, Julius Maada Bio, in a second round of voting.

In issuing the European Union observer mission's preliminary results, chief observer Richard Howitt said Monday it is up to the country's election body to make a decision about when to announce the results.

The body legally has up to 10 days after the election to declare its results.

"Clearly, the National Electoral Commission will want to take sufficient time and care to ensure the accurate accounting of the vote but they will want to move as quickly as possible with the announcement of the results before any risks of instability or unrest," Mr. Howitt said.

Sierra Leone's chief elections officer, Christiana Thorpe, said that polling "was reported to be peaceful and orderly in almost all polling stations nationwide."

However, she noted that polling was disrupted by a swarm of honey bees in Ward 135 in the Kambia District.

"The polling station was automatically relocated and polling went on peacefully," Ms. Thorpe said.

'Orderly, transparent'

The EU mission noted there were isolated reports of the governing party distributing cash payments.

While the mission was assured that the amount of money involved amounted to a local "handshake," Mr. Howitt said in one case there was "a significant amount of money involved."

There also was a report of one polling station where voters who presented ID cards were allowed to vote though they ultimately were not on the voter registry, Mr. Howitt said. The ballot boxes in question were under quarantine pending an investigation, he added.

The U.S.-based Carter Center also said this week that Sierra Leone's vote had been "peaceful, orderly and transparent."

Some polls opened late and in some instances there were shortages of election materials, observers noted.

"These shortfalls were generally addressed by midday and they did not undermine the fundamental integrity of the electoral process," said former Zambian President Rupiah Banda, who is with the Carter Center delegation.

The observer mission from the West African regional bloc ECOWAS also noted a few isolated incidents, including the absence of backup lighting, which required party agents to improvise with cellphones and flashlights to enable counting in the dark.

'The world is watching us'

Voters said Saturday they wanted to demonstrate just how far Sierra Leone has come over the past decade by holding a transparent and peaceful vote.

"We've been through a lot in the last 20 years. Now we're trying to move forward," said Mannah Kpukumu, 36, a civil servant waiting in a line that snaked near a giant cotton tree long before dawn. "We the young guys want employment and to be able to take care of our families."

National election officials spread that message through posters affixed to tin shacks and traffic circles throughout the capital of Freetown: "The world is watching us. Let us don't disappoint them."

Election workers slept overnight at polling stations and some voters began lining up at 2 a.m. in the congested seaside capital, with chests pressed up against the people in front of them. Those not yet old enough to vote weaved through the crowds selling plastic bags of cold water stacked in buckets on their heads.

Sierra Leone's presidential race has hinged on which candidate can best uplift this West African country, which is trying to shed its past after a brutal 1991-2002 civil war.

A decade after the war's end, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world despite its diamonds and other riches.

Several recent offshore oil discoveries, though, are raising hopes for economic development.

A crucial test

Most of the country's nearly 6 million people live on less than $1.25 a day, and it remains among the deadliest places in the world for women to give birth.

Earlier this year, the capital was hard-hit by a cholera outbreak.

While Sierra Leone already had held two mostly peaceful votes since the war's end, experts said Saturday's vote would be a crucial test of whether those gains were irreversible.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised Sierra Leone voters for the "peaceful and largely orderly elections.

"The high voter turnout and the remarkable calm displayed by the country's citizens as they cast their votes are a clear manifestation of their desire for peace, democracy and development," said a statement released by Mr. Ban's spokesman.

The incumbent president, Mr. Koroma has pointed to his accomplishments during his first term, pleading with voters in his campaign signs: "I Will Do More."

His supporters point to strides made in the country's health care system through a program offering free medical aid.

Mr. Koroma's APC party was expected to draw strong support in the north and in the capital, though he also appeared to be making some inroads in traditional opposition strongholds. It's unclear, though, whether he can get the 55 percent of ballots needed to win outright and avert a runoff.

Mr. Koroma faced eight challengers including the leading opposition figure Bio, a retired brigadier-general from the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).

Bio calls himself the "father of democracy" after his brief three-month tenure as head of state in 1996 before handing over power to a democratically elected civilian government.

Bio and his supporters maintain the president has failed to deliver on his 2007 election promises and does not deserve a second term.

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