- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 11, 2005

MONROVIA, Liberia — With U.N. tanks and troops standing guard, Liberians waited in long lines yesterday to vote for the country’s first postwar president, who many hope will bring stability to one of Africa’s 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.

About 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 yesterday, 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. Today, the Liberians are voting for peace,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer said.

She 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.

But Mr. Weah’s critics say he has neither the education nor the management experience to govern Liberia.

Mr. Weah said he was confident of victory.

“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.

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