MONROVIA. – Millions of Liberians are voting today to elect a new president and legislators in the West African country’s third election since the end of the civil war in 2003. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent’s first female president, is stepping down after serving two six-year terms in office – the constitutionally mandated limit.
It will be the first time since 1944 that a democratically-elected leader will hand over power to another elected leader in the country. Campaigning has been loud and colourful as the 20 presidential candidates compete to get the support of the 2.2 million registered voters. Charles Taylor’s former wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, is the running mate of Fifa World Player of the Year, George Weah – one of the leading presidential candidates in the polls. She remains loyal to her former husband and wants the country to go back to the former leader’s “agenda”.
Taylor is Liberia’s former president and is now serving a 50-year jail term in the UK for committing war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone during that country’s civil war, feel hard done by. For a candidate to be declared winner they must win at least 50 percent of the votes cast, plus one. There is no clear favourite and a second round runoff is very likely. The issues facing the 4.6 million Liberians are similar and candidates’ manifestos appear in tune with that.
So, what are the issues most pressing for voters? Corruption is endemic in Liberia and one of the first pledges President Sirleaf promised after she came to power was to declare corruption a “major public enemy”. Twelve years later, Monrovia still ranks poorly in fighting graft. Addressing parliament earlier this year, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner said her government could have done more to eradicate corruption.
“We have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006,” Sirleaf, popularly known as Ellen Ma in Liberia, said. Her critics also said the president should not have appointed her three sons to important posts in her government.
Fourteen years of civil war left more than a quarter of a million Liberians (about quarter of the population) dead and hundreds of thousands of others seeking refuge in other countries. The scars of the brutal war linger on. Sporadic violence and inflammatory rhetoric from candidates in the run-up to the polls have not helped the fragile country.
“Reconciliation has been patchy, but with time is deepening,” Alex Vines, head of the Africa programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.
“Under the Transitional Government, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched in 2005 and it worked throughout the first mandate of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and concluded in 2010. It made recommendations, but there has been little follow up,” Vines said.
All the leading candidates have promised to create jobs for the unemployed masses, especially the youth, during their campaign rallies. According to the United Nations, young people make up more than 60 percent of the country’s population, and youth unemployment is estimated to be as high as 85 percent.
In 2013, President Sirleaf said youth unemployment is a major threat to peace and security in her country, and unless it was addressed could return Liberia back into conflict. Regardless of who wins today’s hotly contested election, one thing is sure: the winner will take over a country in far better shape than the one Sirleaf inherited in 2005, when she was elected as president. – Al Jazeera/HR.