Liberia abuzz on final day of election campaign

MONROVIA – Liberia's election campaign wraps up on Sunday after being rattled by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's Nobel Peace Prize win, seen as an unfair coup for the incumbent ahead of the nation's second post-war polls.

Political parties took to the streets early in a final thrust to build up support, and a small crowd gathered outside Sirleaf's residence, playing trumpets, beating drums and dancing ahead of her party's final rally.

Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian women's activist and joint Nobel Peace Prize winner, was expected to arrive in the capital Sunday where her women's movement in their characteristic white shirts have been meeting on a dusty soccer field to pray for a peaceful election.

"We are fasting and praying for the nation, Liberia is all we have," Margaret Malley, 69, a member of the movement credited with defying warlords to bring peace to the country after an 1989-2003 civil war, told AFP.

The Tuesday presidential and legislative elections are being closely watched as a litmus test of Liberia's eight-year peace, after a bloody war notorious for drugged-up child soldiers, widespread rape and ethnic violence in which 250,000 were killed.

The campaign has been peaceful and the race is seen to be headed by Sirleaf and main opposition candidate Winston Tubman, 70, a Harvard-trained lawyer with crowd-pulling football star George Weah at his side.

A total of 16 candidates are in the running, and in parliament, 15 senatorial seats and 81 legislative seats are up for grabs.

The opposition has strongly criticised the awarding of the prestigious Nobel prize to Sirleaf so close to election day. While a darling of the international community, the president faces a tougher crowd at home.

The grandmother is hailed for social development, the fight for women's rights and steps to reconstruct a nation destroyed by war, but extreme poverty, 80 percent unemployment and rampant corruption persist at home.

"So much done. So much to do. Much to lose," reads a billboard outside Sirleaf's home. The president wants more time to carry on her efforts to rebuild the country.

However Sirleaf is criticised over impunity for those who committed rights violations during the wars and a lack of reconciliation in a nation with a dizzying array of ethnic rivalries which still turn deadly from time to time.

She has failed to implement the recommendations of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report naming her on a list of people who should be banned from public office for 30 years for backing Taylor.

"What the president could have done is try to unite the country, heal the wounds and make apologies for, show remorse for, what went on …" Tubman told AFP in an interview in his garden in Monrovia on Saturday.

Tubman attributes the country's stability and peace to "the international presence and the huge and very costly UN force that is still here."

Liberia still relies heavily on an 8,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission (UNMIL). Its own army is still not operational and UN-trained national police force largely unable to secure the country outside of Monrovia.

Tubman's Congress for Democratic Change has forged several key alliances, such as that with warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Party (NPP).

"We will not decline that following because of what has been done to or with Charles Taylor," said Tubman.

Taylor is currently awaiting judgement by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but has never been prosecuted for atrocities committed in his own country.

"In fact the question of Charles Taylor is one of the questions that an eventual Liberian administration will have to be able to bring closure to."

Some 1.8 million Liberians have registered to vote on Tuesday, and security forces are on high alert for potential instability after recent post-poll conflict in neighbouring Ivory Coast saw armed fighters flooding into the country, hiding in the dense rainforest on the border.

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