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Liberia Elections: What are the key issues?

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 08/10/2017
Campaigning has been loud and colourful as the 20 presidential candidates compete to get the support of the 2.2 million registered voters [Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Campaigning has been loud and colourful as the 20 presidential candidates compete to get the support of the 2.2 million registered voters [Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters]

Millions of Liberians will vote on Tuesday to elect a new president and lawmakers in the West African country’s third election since the end of the civil war in 2003.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the continent’s first female president, is stepping down after serving two six year terms in office - the constitutionally mandated limit.

It will be the first time since 1944 that a democratically elected leader will hand over power to another elected leader in the country.

Campaigning has been loud and colourful as the 20 presidential candidates compete to get the support of the 2.2 million registered voters.

For a candidate to be declared winner they must win at least 50 percent of the votes cast plus one. There is no clear favourite and a second round runoff is very likely.

The issues facing the 4.6 million Liberians are similar and candidates’ manifestos appear in tune with that.

So, what are the issues most pressing for voters?

Corruption

Corruption is endemic in Liberia and one of the first pledges President Sirleaf promised after she came to power was to declare corruption a “major public enemy”.

Twelve years later, Monrovia still ranks poorly in fighting graft with the country ranked 90 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 corruption perception index.

READ MORE: Is Liberia's Sirleaf really standing up for women?

Addressing parliament earlier this year, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner said her government could have done more to eradicate corruption.

‘We have not fully met the anti-corruption pledge that we made in 2006.’ Sirleaf, popularly known as Ellen Ma in Liberia, said.

Her critics also said the president should not have appointed her three sons to important posts in her government.

Reconciliation

Fourteen years of civil war left more than a quarter of a million Liberians (about quarter of the population) dead and hundreds of thousands of others seeking refuge in other countries.

The scars of the brutal war still lingers on. Sporadic violence and inflammatory rhetoric from candidates in the run up to the polls have not helped the fragile country.

“Reconciliation has been patchy, but with time is deepening,” Alex Vines, head of Africa programme at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera.

“Under the Transitional Government, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission launched in 2005 and it worked throughout the first mandate of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and concluded in 2010. It made recommendations but there has been little follow up,” Vines said.

Many of the young people who fought in the long civil war are jobless and unhappy with the luck of economic opportunities afforded to them.

Supporters of Charles Taylor, the former president of the country who is now serving a 50-year jail term in the UK for committing war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone during that country’s civil war, feel hard done.

Charles Taylor's former wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, is the running mate of George Weah – one of the leading presidential candidates in the polls. She is still loyal to her former husband and wants the country to go back to the “agenda” of the former leader.

Infrastructure

Sirleaf’s government has done much to improve the country’s non-existent infrastructure since she came to power. But much more remains to be done.

The construction of the highway that leads to neighbouring Guinea has created many local jobs and made the movement of goods easier, but much of the roads in the country are either in bad shape or non-existent.

One of the recent flagship projects of Ellen Ma’s government - the reconstruction of Coffee Hydro Dam, which when completed in the coming months - will add at least 22 megawatts of electricity to the country’s national grid.

Most Liberians have no access to electricity and power cuts are common in major cities and towns. Those who have access to electricity pay premium leaving many to use diesel generators.

“If we had electricity, that would be a lot better because electricity is a lot cheaper and also in terms of labour costs, it’s a lot cheaper when you have electricity,” Mahmoud Johnson, owner of two food processing factories, told Al Jazeera.

Youth unemployment

All the leading candidates have promised to create jobs for the unemployed masses especially the youth during their campaign rallies. According to the United Nations, young people make up more than 60 percent of the country’s population, and youth unemployment is estimated to be as high as 85 percent.

In 2013, President Sirleaf said youth unemployment is a major threat to peace and security in her country, and unless it was addressed could return Liberia back into conflict.

No matter who wins Tuesday’s hotly contested election, one thing is not in doubt that the winner will take over a country in far better shape than the one Ellen Ma took over in 2005 when she was elected as president.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

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