Euphoria turned to nervous anticipation in Liberia yesterday as election officials using battery-powered lanterns counted ballots through the night from the country's first postwar polls.
Many Liberians saw Tuesday's elections -- the first since the end of a civil war which ripped the West African country apart -- as a historic opportunity for their country to emerge from a devastating cycle of poverty and violence.
Vying for the country's top job were 22 candidates, pitting millionaire soccer star George Weah against former warlords, wealthy lawyers and Harvard-educated politician, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who could become Africa's first elected female president.
A candidate must gain over 50 percent of the ballots cast on Tuesday to avoid a runoff with the runner-up. Results must be posted within 15 days, although a final tally is expected earlier. A second round, if necessary, would be held in early next month.
Diplomats say the make-up of the 30-seat Senate and 64-seat House of Representatives, being contested in parliamentary polls also held on Tuesday, will be key to the new leader's ability to govern smoothly.
The head of Liberia's elections commission, Frances Johnson-Morris, said she expected to announce some initial results yesterday, though it would take longer for information to come from outlying polling stations, some of which are more than two days walk from the nearest road.
"I'm going to be real, real tense over the next few days," said Claudius Broderick, 31, after voting just before polls closed late on Tuesday in the Paynesville suburb of the Monrovia.
On street corners, groups of young men clasped portable radios to their ears, waiting for news.
Election observers, diplomats and UN officials praised the calm way in which Liberians voted. Many waited patiently for hours in the blazing sun to cast their ballots.
"Eighty percent turnout would be my estimation," said Max van den Berg, head of a EU observer team and one of more than 400 international election monitors who watched the vote.
"I think the voters gave a lesson to their leaders in democracy and peaceful behavior," he said.
The UN special representative for Liberia, Alan Doss, commended "the patience, the determination and the friendliness displayed by all Liberians" during the balloting.
The country was once among Africa's richest countries, with vast fields of gems and valuable groves of hardwood trees and rubber plants. It has known little but strife since a first coup in 1980. Years of war ended in 2003 after warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor stepped down amid a rebel invasion of the capital. A transitional government led by Gyude Bryant has ruled the country since.
The 14-year civil war killed a quarter of a million people, uprooted almost a third of the population and left the country's infrastructure in ruins.
Even the capital remains without mains electricity or running water. Squatters live in the burned out concrete shells of government buildings.
In one dank Monrovia schoolroom which served as a polling center, election officials counted ballots late into Tuesday night using battery-powered lanterns, 8,000 of which have been supplied to polling stations around the country.
Observers from political parties watched as ballot papers were piled onto an improvised table made from a sheet of wood balanced on a carpenter's workbench.