Mon, Aug 13, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Counting under way in Sierra Leone


Ballot-counting was under way yesterday in Sierra Leone's first presidential election since UN peacekeepers withdrew two years ago -- a vote seen as a test of the country's transition to democratic rule.

Many Sierra Leoneans see the poll as a chance to show that they have finally emerged from a legacy of coups and a decade-long, diamond-fueled war as a multiparty state that can transfer power peacefully.

Seven candidates are vying to succeed Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. Term limits prevent the 75-year-old leader from running for a third five-year term.

The head of Sierra Leone's electoral commission, Christina Thorpe, said voting finished on time and without incident on Saturday at most polling centers, despite rain and long lines.

Still, there were disturbances.

Late on Saturday, police used tear gas to disperse crowds of youths setting up makeshift roadblocks in a part of eastern Freetown. It was unclear what sparked the incident or whether it was related to the polling.

Thorpe also noted "a small number of violent incidents" in western Freetown, and said polling was delayed in one southern town because of lost ballot boxes.

Results from Saturday's presidential and parliamentary poll will be released progressively, with final tallies within 12 days of voting.

The most crucial period for the war-battered nation may come months down the road, when the public begins expecting real change from a new government. Despite progress since the 10-year war ended in 2002, analysts say many of the root problems that caused the conflict -- corruption, poverty and unemployment -- remain.

"When the euphoria dies down, the public will want to see real change. ... If the new government doesn't perform as people demand, the patience people have shown could run out," said Carolyn Norris, the West Africa director for International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

Vice President and ruling party candidate Solomon Berewa, 69, is considered the front-runner. His biggest challenger is 54-year-old opposition party chief and businessman Ernest Bai Koroma. Also running is Charles Francis Margai, 62, a lawyer and former minister who heads a party that broke away from the ruling coalition 15 months ago.

Saturday's victor must take more than 55 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off between the top two finishers.

In other races, some 572 contenders vied for 112 parliamentary seats. About 2.6 million people are registered to vote.

Sierra Leone has held two elections since the war ended: a presidential vote in 2002 and municipal elections two years later.

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