Liberians lined up solemnly Saturday amid the ruins of their seven-year civil war to elect a government they hope will bring peace.
At bullet-pocked schools, halls and churches - many of them charred shells - hundreds of thousands of Liberians walked silently through drizzling rain to cast ballots.
Soldiers from nearby West African states stood guard, and foreign observers toured the polling places. Their presence emphasized that foreign governments share the hope that the vote might end the war that has killed at least 150,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands into miserable exile.
The vote is seen as the best hope for peace since the war began. Liberians have said that if the results are tallied fairly, it will be the freest election ever held here. Liberia was founded 150 years ago by freed slaves and black missionaries from the United States. Their descendants, called Americo-Liberians, formed a narrow elite that enforced single-party rule until they were overthrown in a 1980 coup.
The election was organized hastily in the last two months under the aegis of the Economic Community of West African States after that group’s peacekeeping force in Liberia managed to establish fragile control over the country.
Logistical problems, including seasonal rains, tempered preparations. But preliminary reports from official election observers suggest that, nationally, the voting “went surprisingly well,” a European election observer said. Many areas reported turnout above 80 or 90 percent, he said.
With tallies and ballots to be gathered from some isolated communities by helicopter or canoe, the results are not expected before Wednesday.
If no candidate wins a majority, the two top vote-getters will face a runoff Aug. 2.
The race among 13 candidates appears to be a contest between two divergent types of post-Cold War leaders. The dominant candidate is Charles Taylor, who assembled a private army and ignited the war in 1989 with an attempt to seize power. For years, he has controlled much of Liberia’s interior.
With a charismatic persona and money wrung from mines and other resources, Taylor has forged a machine and personality cult.
Taylor’s main challenger is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated banker and former Africa director for the U.N. Development Program. Johnson-Sirleaf is believed to draw most of her support from more urbanized and educated Liberians in the Monrovia area - and perhaps among women.
Taylor is seen as strongest in his rural base and among many young, alienated Liberians who respond to his strength and nationalist rhetoric.