Judgement day for Nobel laureate

Liberia votes on whether to give peace prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf a second term as president

Liberians queued from before dawn yesterday to pass their verdict on a president who is lionised abroad but has faced strong opposition at home to her bid for a second term in office.

Nobel Peace laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will discover today whether she has won the single-round victory she campaigned for or faces a run-off next month against a united opposition.

The campaign has been marked by mass rallies and exuberant crowds, but on polling day the atmosphere was more sombre.

In the dilapidated capital Monrovia, voters waited up to five hours to cast their ballot amid a tropical rainstorm.

George Stephen, a civil servant, said he would be voting for the "same old government" even though he fielded complaints about it daily from fellow Liberians. "The most important thing is peace," he said.

The country's recovery from the war that ended in 2003 remains fragile. The national budget amounts to little more than £64 a year for each Liberian and progress on restoring the devastated infrastructure has been slow. There is little formal employment and literacy rates in rural areas are in single figures.

Voters were asked at polling booths yesterday if they could read and many had to admit they could not.

In Red Light, a rundown neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital, Pastor Tosher Brown said the vast crowds drawn by the president's main rival Winston Tubman and his running mate and football hero George Weah may not mean much at the ballot box.

"Most people have two jackets," he smiled. "And you never know which they will be wearing when they vote."

In the beachfront shantytown of West Point, people have been paying to have their T-shirts printed with the opposition CDC party initials and frustration at the government is tangible.

"We live in a slum, for God's sake, and they have put up $4m [£2.6m] of billboards," complained 55-year-old Andy Ponpon. "They should spend that on citizens." To win the first round, the 72-year-old incumbent would need more than half of the vote, despite running against 15 other candidates.

Dan Saryee, director of the Liberian Democratic Institute, said the opposition would be a "serious threat" when they rallied behind a single alternative in the expected run-off.

"If there's a one-round win, something strange is going on," he said. "A one-shot win could be a trigger for violence as people strongly believe it is impossible."

Fresh in people's minds is the conflict sparked by last year's elections in neighbouring Ivory Coast, in which hundreds of Liberians fought as mercenaries.

The UN has 11,000 peacekeepers in Liberia, many of whom were on patrol yesterday.

Ellen Margaret Loj, the UN's top official in the country, said the atmosphere was good and voting appeared peaceful at polling stations.

Liberians remain reluctant to contemplate unrest in a country getting used to peace.

At Monrovia's Lutheran Church yesterday, lines of voters snaked over white stars painted on the ground to mark mass graves from a 1990 massacre.

Othello Gsingbeh, the 60-year-old church janitor, remembers the day that 600 people were slaughtered, many of them his friends.

"It's a happy day to cast a vote on this ground," he said. "What happened here must never happen again."

Voters give their verdict

Emmanuel Myers, 42

Things seem to have gone well. I called a few of my friends around the country and everyone said the vote has been peaceful. After what we've experienced, I think the next chapter will be fine. My son, who is 20, is more interested in sports than politics. But with a sportsman like George Weah running for president, he has shown some interest in the election.

Joseph S Korvah, 19, Student

This is the first time I've been able to vote so I don't have anything to compare. I haven't seen any fighting; just people discussing quietly or waiting patiently. It's encouraging. I don't have much experience of politics but in the last few years we've seen a lot of building projects going on, so I think the government has been good. It seems like they are doing something.

Lorpu Johnson, 38, with her two-year-old daughter, Samre. Works at the Ministry of Finance

I'm feeling very fine about the vote. So far it's been peaceful. The most important issue for me is building a better future for our children. Any woman who is educated will be able to sustain a family. Liberia has good female role models and I pray that there will be many more.

Elizabeth Sayeh, 40, with six-year-old Ellen Sirleaf Sayeh

I like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. That's why, after the last election, I named my daughter after her. She was born in 2005. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has done many great things for women, for Liberia. She is our mother.

Theresa Doe, 30

Ellen does not do anything for the children's future. You can't afford to send a child to school. It's true that she's a woman and I'm a woman but she's a Congo (member of the Americo-Liberian elite). Now it's time for the native people to rule. Ellen did nothing.

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