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Liberians ready to head to polls after open, competitive campaign

MONROVIA, Liberia—The sound of gunfire no longer echoes in the streets of this long-suffering West African capital. Instead there are cheers and songs from Liberians engaged in a different kind of warfare: a political campaign.

Liberia is abuzz over Tuesday's national elections—a milestone in the country's recovery from a 14-year civil war and the start of what many Liberians believe is a golden opportunity to create a stable, functioning democratic government after decades of rule by ruthless elites and violent despots.

Everywhere in Monrovia—on car bumpers, T-shirts, schoolbooks and the crumbling walls of bombed-out buildings—are advertisements for political candidates. Supporters of rival presidential candidates yell at each other, mostly good-naturedly, across busy streets. Radio stations remind listeners of voting procedures.

"It's the first real election I've witnessed," said Elfric Porte, 71, a Monrovia shopkeeper. "The preparation has been the most elaborate. There has been a lot of public participation and a lot of debate."

The campaign has been remarkably free and competitive, with 22 candidates vying for president. More than 1 million of Liberia's 3 million citizens have registered to vote. And aside from a few skirmishes at the start of the campaign in August, it has been nearly violence-free.

"It's going better than anybody dared to hope just six months or so ago," said Mike McGovern, West Africa director for the International Crisis Group.

"It's about as solid a foundation as you could ask for rebuilding a devastated country like Liberia."

Much of the credit goes to the United Nations, which established a massive mission in Liberia in 2003 after then-President Charles Taylor was forced from power. As part of a peace agreement signed by warring militias, the U.N. sent in 15,000 peacekeepers—its second largest deployment in the world after the Congo—who have restored order and paved the way for Tuesday's elections.

But the real work of rebuilding Liberia will begin after the new government is sworn in.

The challenges are immense in a country that's known nothing but war and lawlessness in a generation. Founded in 1821 by freed American slaves, Liberia since the 1980s has seen nearly all its infrastructure destroyed and much of its gold, diamonds and other natural resources looted by government militias and rebel groups to finance their bloody pursuits.

Liberia's last election, in 1997, was marked by threats and intimidation of voters, who chose Taylor by a wide margin in part out of fear that Taylor would relaunch civil war if he lost. For the rest of his tenure until he was forced into exile, Taylor let the economy crumble while fanning the flames of wars in neighboring West African countries.

With Sierra Leone struggling to rebuild itself following its own civil war and Guinea and Ivory Coast still volatile, Liberia's recovery is essential for West Africa's stability, experts say.

"The threat of war in West Africa is a regional matter," said Paul Risley, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Liberia.

In Liberia, tens of thousands of ex-soldiers, many of them teenagers, can't find work and are sitting idle. The illiteracy rate is 80 percent. Half the population lives on less than 50 cents a day.

Monrovia, home to a third of the country's 3 million people, hasn't had electricity or running water in a decade. Schools are poorly kept, and families that can afford it have sent their children to the United States or neighboring West African countries.

Joseph Edzii's 15-year-old daughter is in high school in Ghana, and in a few years he'll have to decide whether to send his 9-year-old son abroad, too. He hopes that the new government places a priority on education—but then again, he acknowledges, there's a long list of needs.

"The roads have holes, the lights don't work, no one has access to the Internet," lamented Edzii, 40, a pharmacy clerk. "We want someone who can bring this country back to better than what we knew it to be."

The leading presidential candidates have pledged to restore social services and stamp out corruption, which has plagued even the transitional government.

No reliable opinion polls exist, but observers say the race is between two candidates—George Weah, a soccer legend and philanthropist who has traveled the world on behalf of UNICEF but has no political experience, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist and former Liberian finance minister who backed Taylor in the 1980s before becoming one of his strongest critics.

Each campaign is heavy on personality. Weah's supporters—many of whom are young and from rural areas—recount his soccer exploits with some of Europe's top teams in the 1990s. A 66-year-old mother of four sons, Johnson-Sirleaf, who's trying to become Africa's first female president, is celebrated for her toughness; one of her campaign stickers says, "Ellen, she's our man."

The U.N. mission has shouldered the heavy logistical burden of holding an election in a heavily forested country with few paved roads. Last week, election materials for 1.3 million voters were distributed to 1,300 voting sites around the country—with porters traveling long distances on foot in some cases and helicopters deployed to reach the remotest areas.

More than 300 voting sites are a day's walk or farther from the nearest passable road. Once voting is completed, reliable election results may not be available for several days, Risley said.

Observers are expecting a high turnout, given the stakes that many Liberians have attached to this election.

"There's little doubt that the people themselves are ready for peace," said Tom Crick, Liberia project director for the Carter Center, an Atlanta-based charity group that's among several international agencies monitoring the election.

"They see it as an opportunity they can't afford to waste. It's their last, best chance."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LIBERIA

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