11/08/2011

LIBERIA: Liberian presidential polls open despite boycott


By JONATHAN PAYE-LAYLEH, RUKMINI CALLIMACHI
 
2011-11-08

MONROVIA, Liberia — Liberia's capital remained tense on Tuesday as small lines formed outside polling stations a day after election violence killed one person amid the opposition's call to boycott the presidential runoff vote.
Voters in this West African nation where more than a third of adults can't read, were handed ballots showing two sets of photographs. On one end of the paper was the turbaned and spectacled incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who became Africa's first female elected head of state five years ago and who is seeking a second term. Below her was a photograph of her challenger Winston Tubman, a former United Nations diplomat who dropped out of the race last week and called on his supporters to withhold their vote in protest.
Because the ballots were already printed, Tubman's photograph could not be removed, but the effectiveness of his boycott was evident in the visibly reduced lines.
Some polling stations had no more than a dozen people waiting their turn. Whereas during the first round of voting last month, voters camped out on the pavement, then waited hours for their chance to cast their ballot, nearly an hour after polls opened Tuesday many of the polling stations in the capital had no one waiting to vote.
Latecomers simply walked up to the doors, showed their ID and were handed a ballot.
Tubman's boycott won't stop the Nobel Peace Prize winner Sirleaf from winning, but it could undercut her victory and delegitimize her government since she is running unopposed. International election monitors said Tubman's claims of fraud are unsubstantiated and both the United States and the United Nations Security Council issued sharp criticism, calling on him to reverse his decision and encouraging citizens to vote.
"It's about our future and our children's. Even if I don't want the government, it does not mean I can't vote," said Kollie Kennedy, who was waiting her turn at a polling station set up inside a Pentecostal church. "It's about Liberia."
Monie Cooper, who was near the front of the line at the same polling station in Monrovia, said elections are important.
"I call on those boycotting the poll to ignore the ignorance and show up to vote," she said.
The day before the vote on Monday, Tubman's supporters clashed with police in violence that left at least one dead and four others injured with bullet wounds. Overnight, police stormed two opposition radio stations and shut them down, according to witnesses and employees of the stations.
Tubman said that the violence was further evidence that the vote should have been postponed, but most country experts and analysts say Tubman is boycotting not because of fears of fraud but because he knew he could not win.
"If you look at the figures, you can see that Tubman is almost certainly going to lose. He is 12, 13 points down in the polls," said Stephen Ellis, the author of a history of the Liberian civil war and a researcher at the African Studies Center in Leiden in the Netherlands. "It's an obvious calculation. He withholds legitimacy from the government," said Ellis. "If it was felt by a large part of population to not be legitimate, in a place like Liberia, with its history, it becomes quite worrying," he said.
The election is only the second since the end of Liberia's horrific civil war eight years ago — and it's the first being organized by the country's government, rather than by the United Nations. The vote is being seen as a test of the country's democracy as well as of its fragile peace.
United Nations peacekeepers from Nigeria were deployed at the headquarters for Tubman's party, the Congress for Democratic Change, the scene of Monday's clash. Jordanian peacekeepers drove armored-personnel carriers to Sirleaf's home, where they stood guard as she left to vote.
Troops also stopped and searched cars crossing the Tucker Bridge, a major bridge linking mainland Monrovia to the land jutting out into the Atlantic ocean.
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Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.