By Yara Bayoumy
MOGADISHU (Reuters) - Members of parliament in Somalia will vote for a new president on Monday in the first vote of its kind in decades amid fears that the historic election will be rigged and do little to alter the political landscape.
Billed as a milestone in the war-ravaged country's quest to end two decades of violence, graft and infighting, a newly elected parliament will convene at the police academy in Mogadishu to vote for the next head of state by secret ballot.
More than two dozen candidates are vying for the position, including the current president and prime minister, as well as prominent Somalis who have returned from overseas.
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.
There has been no effective central government control over most of the country since the outbreak of civil war in 1991 and 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 vote is the first to take place in Somalia in decades and has been made possible by African Union, Kenyan and Ethiopian troops who have pushed al Qaeda-linked militants out of more and more areas. As a result, many Somalis have felt it is safe enough to return to rebuild their country.
But the reform process has been marred by corruption allegations and has suffered numerous setbacks.
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.
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.
The president's office could not be reached to comment on the allegation on Sunday but 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 received by the transitional federal government between 2009-2010 $7 had never made it into state coffers. Ahmed dismissed those allegations.
HOPING FOR AN "OBAMA"
Despite the possibility that the election may be flawed, many Somalis are elated their country is even holding an election.
"This is a historic moment. 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," said Abdi.
On Sunday, which the government designated as a day of campaigning, supporters of President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed and Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, a popular former prime minister, marched across the capital waving banners and shouting slogans in support of their candidates.
"We used to watch presidential elections and campaigning on televisions. Now Mogadishu has turned into a city that is campaigning peacefully for president," said Mohamed Ahmed, a university student, who was watching the marches.
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.
Despite retreating from Mogadishu, the rebels still pose a threat and security concerns will weigh on Monday's gathering, which is expected to be attended by many dignitaries.
(Additional reporting by Mohamed Ahmed; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Andrew Osborn)