- - Tuesday, October 10, 2017

MONROVIA, Liberia | After waiting in line all day on Tuesday to cast her vote at the St. Theresa Convent school for girls near this capital city’s seafront, Mary Monji and others sat on plastic lawn chairs in a bar waiting for the election results to start streaming on television.

“We are anxiously waiting for change,” said the 30-year-old mother of three. “We want a good leader who will solve our problems, not a dictator. We are praying so that God listens to us.”

In a continent where democracy and political freedoms are frequently under siege, the peaceful transfer of power in this poor but proud nation stands out as a rare reason for hope.

Ms. Monji and many others here are supporting Vice President Joseph Boakai, who is facing stiff competition from ex-soccer star George Weah. A total of 18 other presidential candidates are also running to succeed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who is honoring a pledge to step down after two terms and 11 years in power.

Voters here say they want a government that will improve the fragile economy, no matter who emerges as the next president.

“We need jobs for youths,” said Joseph Togar, 20, a University of Liberia student. “Many youths here have completed their university education, but there are no jobs at all. Some are engaging in criminal activities. We need a president who will solve this problem and also lower the cost of living.”

Deputy Police Inspector General Ibrahem Kromah said more than 6,000 police officers were deployed to help more than 2 million voters, including monitoring poll workers to prevent ballot stuffing.

“The police will be protecting the process of elections and its integrity while carrying out regular police work. We shall not be meddling in the electoral process,” said Mr. Kromah. “We’ll make sure the transition goes on peacefully.”

Tuesday’s election is set to become the first time a democratically elected president handed power to a democratically elected successor in Liberia’s history. Provisional results were expected by Thursday night, but election officials have until Oct. 25 to confirm the results and schedule a runoff if nobody wins a majority.

Ms. Sirleaf has remained neutral throughout the campaign and has not campaigned for her deputy, prompting many Boakai supporters to accuse her of sabotaging their candidate.

“Sirleaf has performed poorly as the president of this country, but our deputy will fix all the problems she created,” said Ms. Monji. “The president is afraid because she knows that her deputy will perform better than her.”

The outgoing president took over this West African nation in 2006, three years after a bloody civil war that began three years earlier when rebels forced out her predecessor, Charles Taylor. That came on top of other major civil conflicts in the 1990s that killed 250,000 and the 2015 Ebola crisis that claimed more than 11,000 lives.

Taylor was later convicted at the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity for supporting rebel troops in neighboring Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. He is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence in Britain.

Now Ms. Sirleaf has been urging Liberians to maintain peace during the election so that the country may not plunge into chaos again.

“We cannot go back to conflict,” said the president, addressing the nation recently. “Our country was set back over 30 years because of conflict. The underpinnings of everything we have done is the peace that we have secured, and that was not easy.”

Mr. Weah, the best-known challenger, has accused the Sirleaf government of failing to combat corruption, maintain security or grow the economy.

“I’m confident of winning this election,” said Mr. Weah, who has chosen Taylor’s ex-wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, as his running mate. “The president and her government [have] failed to deliver what she promised Liberian people. I’m going to create jobs for our people and also to ensure we have good roads.”

Observers said voters’ memories of Taylor’s reign would play a big role in the election.

“I think Liberians are interested in any of the presidential candidates who [are] ready to address their issues like lowering the cost of living, creat[ing] jobs and reviv[ing] the economy,” said Otto Saah, a human rights activist. “Taylor is still [a] very influential leader in our politics today because he was very charismatic and loved by many people. This can probably favor Weah, who has nominated his wife as deputy.”

 


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