MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberia heads to the polls Tuesday for elections that for the first time in more than 70 years will see one democratically elected government hand power to another as a Nobel Prize-winning leader steps aside.
It is a turning point for the West African country whose health system was decimated by the Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 5,000 Liberians in 2014-2015 and posed the biggest challenge for Africa's first elected female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She has led Libera's transition from a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 after killing more than 250,000 people.
"It is an historic day for our nation, and for the consolidation of Liberia's young democracy," Sirleaf said Monday. "Let us take a moment to reflect on how far we have come, as a nation, and as a people, from a society destroyed by conflict and war, to one of the most vibrant democracies in the West Africa region."
Sirleaf also called for peaceful, free and fair elections, urging Liberians to respect the outcome.
An economist, Sirleaf steered the country's recovery and attracted international aid to Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves and is one of the United States' closest allies in Africa. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two others for their work on women's rights.
Despite seeing advancements for women and steps against corruption — including some allegedly linked to Sirleaf herself— the impoverished nation of more than 4.2 million people still has a weak economy and struggles to address the atrocities of the past.
So far, no one has emerged as the clear favorite to be Liberia's next president. Twenty presidential candidates are vying for a majority in the first round of elections on Tuesday, while nearly 1,000 candidates fight for 73 seats in the House of Representatives. Given the high number of presidential candidates, it is unlikely anyone will win more than 50 percent of the vote, taking the elections to a second round, likely in November. Final results for the first round are expected to be announced by Oct. 25.
"The hopes are that the new president will deliver on his promise of improving the economy by providing more jobs, bringing electricity to ensure the economy works, providing affordable and accessible health and education and improving the devastated roads, especially the farm-to-market roads so that agriculture products are brought to the market," said S. Kpanbayeazee Duworko, a political and social commentator in Liberia and a University of Liberia instructor. "Anyone who comes to power will have to seriously turn the economy around, from stagnation and stagflation to growth."
Duworko added that "the likelihood of the ruling party being defeated is high. People are tired and want change."
Despite Sirleaf's groundbreaking role, only one female candidate is running for the presidency, MacDella Cooper, a former model-turned-philanthropist.
Front-runners include former soccer superstar George Weah, whose running mate is Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of imprisoned former warlord and President Charles Taylor. Weah ran against Sirleaf in 2005, placing first in the election's first round but losing to her in the second.
Also running is Prince Johnson, a senator and former warlord who famously videotaped himself as his fighters tortured and killed President Samuel Doe in 1990.
Another key candidate, businessman Benoni Urey, has warned he will not accept any results if the process is not free and fair.
Joseph Boakai, who has been vice president for nearly 12 years, is running for the ruling Unity Party. A newcomer is Alexander Cummings, a former Coca-Cola vice president.
Most of the candidates pledge to address the basic issues of health, education, electricity, roads and economic recovery. Corruption is also a major problem in Liberia, which is among the world's poorest nations.
Sirleaf has acknowledged that her administration has fallen short in its fight against graft, which she called "public enemy number one" when she took office. She has faced persistent allegations of nepotism related to the appointment of her sons to government posts.
She has declared support for her vice president amid suspicion her support is reluctant.
Another major topic is reconciliation, which has been addressed by a few candidates, including Weah, Boakai, Cummings and former Senate leader Charles Brumskine.
No government attempts at reconciliation have been made within Liberia since the civil war, though former leader Charles Taylor was convicted by a U.N.-supported special tribunal of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other offenses for his role in neighboring Sierra Leone during its own civil war in 1991-2001.
For weeks Christian and Muslim women have staged a fast and prayer sit-in in Monrovia's central Sinkor district, prostrating and asking God for Liberia's poll to be peaceful. The same women's group staged a similar action in 2003, praying and prevailing on the country's warlords to end 14 years of war.
"We don't want to be reminded of our bitter past," said Delphine Morris, spokeswoman of the advocacy group Women in Peacebuilding Network told The Associated Press.
"What we the women of Liberia hope is that the process be a calm, free, fair and transparent election," she said, warning that "any attempt to cheat in the process will be dangerous for us."
International observer missions including one from the U.S. National Democratic Institute are in the country to watch the poll.
Petesch reported from Dakar, Senegal