Liberian presidential polls open despite boycott




Liberia riot police walk in a street near the
headquarters of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) party in Monrovia.
A man was killed in the Liberian capital
when an opposition rally turned
violent on the eve of a run-off vote which
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s challenger
accuses the Nobel winner of rigging. (AFP Photo/Issouf Sanogo)

 MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Africa’s first elected female president headed toward easy re-election Tuesday with her sole opponent boycotting Liberia’s runoff, and ignoring entreaties from the United States and the U.N. to participate in what observers say is a free and fair vote.

The presidential election is the first being organized by the Liberian government rather than by the United Nations since the end of the country’s horrific civil war eight years ago.

U.N. peacekeepers on Tuesday deployed to the opposition party headquarters, where one person was killed in rioting the day before. Armored personnel carriers stood guard at incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf‘s home as she left to vote.

Winston Tubman, a former U.N. diplomat who dropped out of the race last week, called on his supporters to withhold their vote in protest.

The boycott won’t stop 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 U.N. 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.

In a country where more than one-third of adults cannot read, voters were handed ballots showing two sets of photographs.

On one end of the paper was the turbaned and spectacled incumbent Sirleaf, who was first elected five years ago and is seeking a second term. 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.

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.
___
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.
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