Polling has opened in Sierra Leone's first elections since the departure of UN troops from the country two years ago.

Sierra Leone's 2.6 million registered voters elect a  leader from seven candidates [Reuters]

Long queues of voters with umbrellas, under drizzling rain, started forming as early as two hours before the polling stations opened at 7am (07:00 GMT) on Saturday.

The vote is seen as a test of whether the country's institutions are now mature enough to transfer power peacefully, five years after the end of it's decade-long civil war that left 50,000 people dead.

Campaigning ended on Friday and there had been fears that divisions between supporters of the different parties could lead to violence.

 

However, the main threat to the vote now appears to be the weather. It is the high monsoon season in western Africa and on Friday torrential rains hit the country causing treacherous conditions on many roads in the capital Freetown.

 

The country's 2.6 million registered voters will elect a new leader from seven presidential candidates.

 

Concurrent parliamentary elections see 572 candidates vying for 112 parliamentary seats.

 

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"I hope the people of Sierra Leon can have this election without violence. All that is needed is one act of violence to spark another civil war."

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Solomon Berewa, the 69-year-old current vice president standing for the ruling Sierra Leone's People's Party (SLPP) is still considered the favourite but is facing a strong challenge from Ernest Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC).

The political scene has also been shaken up by the emergence of a third force, the People's Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), effectively a splinter group formed by Charles Margai in 2005 when he lost the election for the SLPP leadership to Berewa.

The party commands strong support, especially among young voters in the southern and eastern provinces around the towns of Bo and Kenema.

Youth unemployment is a staggering 80 per cent in Sierra Leone and 70 per cent of the population live on less than one dollar a day.

As a result many voters say they have been let down by the SLPP government and if there is the perception that there has been an attempt to fix the vote, clashes could erupt.

Run-off likely

Analysts say a run-off is highly likely, with Koroma and Berewa likely to face-off if neither of them can acquire 55 per cent of the vote required for outright victory. In such an outcome the votes of Margai's PMDC will be crucial.

John Caulker of the rights group Forum for Conscience told Al Jazeera that he thinks there is a 10-in-one chance of violence if a run-off is needed.

 

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No major incidents of violence were reported during the party's final raucous rallies this week which ended with the SLPP's on Thursday. However the election will be a test of the neutrality of the country’s UN and British-trained police force and military.

Christiana Thorpe, the head of the national electoral commission, has said the poll will "make or break this country."

The electoral registration process earlier in the year was highly successful with over 90 per cent of those eligible to vote registering to do so.

With no let-up of the rain in sight the turnout could be affected. It will also create problems for the collection and transportation of ballot boxes once the polls close.

Results were to be released progressively with final tallies within 12 days of voting.

Optimistic voters

Despite the spectre of problems, most Sierra Leoneans are optimistic ahead of the vote and believe it will give them an opportunity to consolidate peace and consign their violent past to the history books.

Abu
Kamara, a former member of the notorious West Side Boys, a splinter faction of the Armed Revolutionary Council, known for their use of child soldiers in the country's 10-year conflict, said: "Election is democracy. Let the people decide."

The PMDC commands strong support  
among young voters

DJ Base, the host of one of the country's most popular radio shows, told Al Jazeera that the most important aspect of Saturday's vote is that it is peaceful.

"We've been through a lot," he says. "The key will be that the elections need to be free and fair."


Whatever the result the country will get a new leader as 75-year-old Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is prevented from running again by constitutional term limits.

Kabbah won a landslide victory in the last presidential poll in 2002, seen largely as a reward for bringing peace.

However, he has faced criticism for his administration's failure to alleviate the abject poverty of many of his citizens and the endemic corruption that continues to hamper economic development.

But in an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera's Andrew Simmons, Kabbah said said he was proud of his tenure.


"I am very happy that I played a pivotal role in bringing peace to my country. It was a very difficult situation," he said. 

 

"I regret that people died, of course. I regret that so many of my people suffered. I regret that so many children that should have gone to school, trained in certain things, were not able to do this."

"But we have taken measure to address all those and for that reason I feel very good that my contribution has been useful."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies