Leading article: Green shoots of democracy

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For months now, the spread of democracy has been equated almost exclusively with the patchy electoral experiments in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority. One consequence is that new green shoots of democracy pushing up spontaneously elsewhere have gone almost unnoticed. With yesterday's election in Liberia, however, some of that changed.

Here were heart-warming scenes to rival those that marked the first post-apartheid election in South Africa. In places, people queued overnight to ensure an early vote in the country's first elections since the end of the civil war. The campaigning had been boisterous, enthusiastic and joyous. People were fully engaged in founding their democracy.

The candidates for president were qualified and colourful, including a former World Bank economist, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and the ex-footballer George Weah. Best of all, no one dared to second-guess the outcome. This was a real election.

The contrast between yesterday's happy election day and the years of civil war could not have been greater. Liberia may be Africa's oldest independent republic, and it may have been founded by freed slaves with the best and most elevated of motives, but its recent history has been among the most chequered of any state in that continent. The civil war ended a bare two years ago with the enforced exile of the murderous warlord, Charles Taylor.

Whoever is elected Liberia's new leader will inherit a devastated country; he or she will be additionally burdened with expectations that are bound to be unrealistic. There are myriad dangers ahead. But there are encouraging signs, too. Where once a reasonably democratic election in Africa might have been hailed as a curiosity destined to end in conflicts or coups, such pessimism now seems misplaced. One glance at the map of the 21st-century world delivered with yesterday's Independent shows Africa far from being a basket case for democracy. Most countries are classified not as one-party states or dictatorships, but as "transitional or uncertain democracies". This is progress.

Of course, the number of "established democracies" is small - how could it not be? And some of those designated "uncertain democracies" are countries with highly unpleasant regimes - such as Zimbabwe. Sudan and Somalia are other blots on the landscape. Overall, though, the picture is one not of gloom, but of hope. Liberia's position on the west coast places it among other established or incipient democracies: there is safety in numbers. That Africa's democracies are mostly growing from native roots rather than being imposed from outside is another promising sign. The continent of Africa is moving in the right direction.