(AFP) -Sierra Leoneans voted Wednesday in a general election to pick a new president, with many craving economic change and a boost to living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Dozens of people joined queues at a polling station visited by AFP in the capital, Freetown, as early as 3 am, four hours before the vote kicked off.
First-time voter Joseph Kargbo, 18, said his mother had ordered him to vote for the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which has promised free universal education — a key campaign issue.
“I just want to have change in our community and government,” he told AFP.
President Ernest Bai Koroma, who cannot run again after consecutive five-year terms, has anointed former foreign minister Samura Kamara as his successor for the ruling All Peoples Party (APC).
The export-dependent economy of the mineral-rich but impoverished country is in a dire state following the 2014-16 Ebola crisis and a commodity price slump that has driven away foreign investors.
Mohamed Conteh, chief commissioner of the National Election Commission (NEC), had said Tuesday that electoral authorities were “committed to conduct credible elections.”
More than 3.1 million voters are registered for the polls, which were set to close at 6 pm (1800 GMT). Partial tallies are expected within 48 hours and complete results within two weeks.
Kamara campaigned on continuity rather than change. “I am (Koroma’s) biggest legacy,” he told AFP at the final APC rally on Monday. “I need to sustain what he has achieved… and build on it.”
The SLPP has retained the same candidate, Julius Maada Bio, who lost to Koroma in 2012.
The National Grand Coalition (NGC), headed by former UN diplomat Kandeh Yumkella, is challenging the two-party system by appealing to young and better educated urban voters who are less likely to vote along regional and ethnic lines.
Sierra Leone, battered by a horrific 1991-2002 civil war, is sharply divided along regional lines that overlap with ethnicity.
The APC broadly relies on the Temne and Limba people in its northern strongholds, while the SLPP is more popular in the south with the Mende ethnic group.
The Institute for Governance Reform (IGR), a Freetown-based think tank, said in a report that voters were showing a “growing willingness… to consider policy proposals over ethnic considerations.”
Observers from the African Union, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the European Union and the British Commonwealth are all overseeing voting.
Isolated clashes have been reported between APC and SLPP supporters during the month-long campaign, with minor injuries and material damage.