At polling stations set up in churches, schools, public buildings and even rural huts and tents, crowds of voters lined up on Tuesday to take part in the first presidential and parliamentary polls since the 14-year war ended in 2003.
Out of 22 presidential hopefuls that include former soldiers and wealthy lawyers, former AC Milan striker and millionaire soccer star George Weah and former World Bank economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf are seen as the frontrunners.
Many Liberians were voting for the first time and saw the polls as an opportunity to leave behind a cycle of violence in Africa’s oldest independent republic, founded by freed slaves from the United States in 1847.
The first partial results are expected from the National Elections Commission on Wednesday.
Voting was reported to be peaceful. At Ganta, a potential troublespot on the border with Guinea in the north, Nigerian peacekeepers patrolled the streets, backed by a UN helicopter.
Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf had campaigned on promises to rebuild Liberia’s shattered infrastructure and restore basic services such as running water and electricity.
“This is a very good day, this is the day people are exercising their democratic right … they are doing it for the first time without fear,” said Weah. His well-funded campaign had drawn huge crowds.
Vote commissioner Frances Johnson
If 66-year-old grandmother Johnson-Sirleaf wins, she could become Africa’s first elected female president.
“I’m happy for the Liberian people. They are tired of destruction. Here they are standing up for themselves today,” she said, voting in Tubmanburg, north of Monrovia.
Some question whether Weah, who was brought up in a Monrovia shantytown, has the qualifications and political experience to be president. His supporters retort that Harvard-trained professionals like Johnson-Sirleaf have done little to help ordinary Liberians over the past two decades.
International observers, including former US president Jimmy Carter, praised the smooth start to voting, despite delays at some centres.
“There is extreme interest in voting, total determination for democracy and freedom,” said Carter. He and other foreign monitors urged Liberians to be patient during voting and in the wait for results.
In northern Lofa County, a UN helicopter had to transport the staff of one polling station across a swollen river.
Key to the new president’s ability to govern will be the balance of power in the 30-seat Senate and 64-seat House of Representatives, which were also being elected on Tuesday.
Until a 2003 peace deal, Liberia was torn apart by 14 years of on-off fighting in which child soldiers high on drugs wielded grenade launchers and Kalashnikovs.
A quarter of a million people were killed and almost a third of the population was forced to flee their homes.
From New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called on “all Liberians to participate in large numbers and in a peaceful manner in this historic election”.