By Yara Bayoumy
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Members of parliament in Somalia voted for a new president on Monday in the first poll of its kind in decades despite suspicions the election will be rigged and do little to alter the political landscape.
Billed by the United Nations as a milestone in the war-ravaged country's quest to end two decades of violence, graft and infighting, newly selected lawmakers convened at the police academy to vote for the next head of state by secret ballot.
"It's D-day for Somalia," lawmaker Abdirahim Abdi said of the election in which more than two dozen candidates are running, including the current president and prime minister as well as prominent Somalis who have returned from overseas.
"It's a turning point for Somalia and everyone's been waiting for it," he told Reuters.
There has been no effective central government control over most of the country since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.
Monday's vote is seen as a culmination of a regionally brokered and U.N.-backed roadmap to end that conflict, during which tens of thousands were killed and many more fled.
The capital, which until last year witnessed street battles between al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab militants and African soldiers, is now a vibrant city, where reconstructed houses are slowly replacing bullet-riddled structures.
But despite being on the backfoot, the militants still control swathes of southern and central Somalia, while pirates, regional administrations and local militia group also vie for control chunks of the largely lawless Horn of Africa country.
Somalia's president heads the executive while the speaker of parliament is considered the country's most powerful politician and steps in if the president is unable to fulfill his duties.
"Any elected president must cope with security first, then the reconstruction of social infrastructure, resettling the numerous (refugees) around the country and the liberation of the rest of the country from al Shabaab," said student Bashir Ali Abdikadir.
Members of parliament marked their ballot papers behind a curtain before casting them in a clear box in front of foreign envoys and hundreds of Somali men and women as well as being broadcast live on television.
If no one candidate secures a two-thirds majority in the first round and a simple majority in the second, the election would go to a third round.
But despite the show of transparency, some presidential contenders and Somalis have criticized the election process, saying it will merely bring in a new government that will look much like previous ones.
Asked what it would mean for Somalia if the incumbent leaders were voted back in, candidate Abdirahman Badiyow said: "It would be very, very, very bad news for Somalis as they haven't made any difference in the last four years. We can't expect them to make change in the future."
A diplomatic source in Mogadishu said millions of dollars were being used to bribe lawmakers to vote for the incumbent, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.
"Seven million dollars is estimated to have come from Gulf sources and the money is intended to ensure that President Sharif is re-elected," said the source, who declined to be named, due to the sensitivity of the matter.
The source said the money was coming from Somali business interests in Gulf Arab countries, some of whom have connections to warlords and want to maintain the status quo.
"Thus far the process has delivered very impressive results, we're afraid it'll be hijacked at the last minute ... there is a struggle now between those who want the status quo and those who want change," the source added, urging lawmakers to "vote with their conscience".
Ahmed has repeatedly denied any suggestion of wrongdoing.
In July, a U.N. Somalia monitoring group report said it had found that out of every $10 in revenue raised between 2009-2010 $7 had never made it into state coffers. Ahmed dismissed those allegations.
Despite the possibility that the election may be flawed, many Somalis are elated their country is holding an election of sorts.
"It's something we have to witness and be a part of, even if we're not voting. We've been through a very difficult labor and we're finally giving birth," said Najmah Ahmed Abdi, who runs a Somali youth forum.
"The (lawmakers) have a momentous responsibility on their shoulders. Tomorrow will be like when U.S. President Barack Obama was elected. We hope we get our own Obama."
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Richard Lough and Alison Williams)