MONROVIA, Liberia — An election that was supposed to solidify peace in this nation emerging from war was marred by dismal turnout Tuesday, after the opposition went ahead with a boycott despite last-minute appeals from the United States and the United Nations Security Council.
The move guarantees re-election for the continent's first and only female president who was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but country experts worry that the low turnout could discredit Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's victory and delegitimize her government.
It's a worrying prospect in the Tennessee-sized nation of 3.9 million that experienced one of Africa's most horrific civil wars and where a fragile peace is held in place largely by the presence of some 9,000 United Nations peacekeepers.
"In life, when you make up your mind, make it fully," said Rahim Willie, who didn't cast his vote Tuesday in keeping with the boycott order issued by opposition leader Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change party, or CDC. "We are Winston Tubman's followers," he said. "He and we believe the elections were flawed and we are staying away. Those who see reason to cast their votes today can do so. But as a CDC person, I can't."
Tubman, the nephew of one of Liberia's longest-serving presidents and a former United Nations diplomat, dropped out of the race last week and called on his supporters to withhold their vote in protest. The United States called his allegations of fraud "unsubstantiated" and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called his decision "deeply disappointing."
Lines were only a dozen or so people deep in many precincts in the capital, and an hour after polls opened, many of the polling booths had no lines at all. Poll workers at several precincts said that voter turnout was as low as 25 percent.
It was a sharp contrast to the first round of the election in October, when hundreds of people slept on the sidewalk overnight for a chance to be among the first to vote. Even as a torrential rain started to come down, people stood in queues that snaked out the doors, switchbacking across dirt courtyards and muddy fields.
Instead on Tuesday, some polling stations closed before the published time when it became clear that no more voters would show up.
Whereas last month, poll workers worked by candlelight to finish counting, in some precincts it appeared they would wrap up while it was still light because there were so few ballots inside the Tupperware containers serving as ballot boxes. At four polling stations in the West Point slum of the capital, the turnout was devastatingly low – with only 83 ballots cast out of 383 registered voters at one, for example, representing just 21 percent voter turnout.
Helicopters hovered overhead and armored-personnel carriers patrolled the main boulevards, especially in the neighborhood where the opposition is headquartered. At least one person was killed and another four suffered bullet wounds after CDC supporters clashed with police on Monday, as they attempted to lead a march in support of the boycott.
The boycott won't stop Sirleaf from winning, but it could undercut her victory and her government since she is running unopposed.
"It was irresponsible of the opposition to do this," said George Wah Williams, who heads Liberia Democracy Watch and who supported the opposition in the election's first round despite having previously voted for Sirleaf in the 1995, 1997 and 2005 elections. "It will have implications on the public outlook on her election."
Tubman claims the electoral process is rigged in his opponent's favor and says this week's violence was further evidence that the vote should have been postponed. Most analysts, however, say Tubman is boycotting not because of fears of fraud but because he knew he could not win.
"If you look at the figures, you can see that Tubman is almost certainly going to lose. He is 12, 13 points down in the polls," said Stephen Ellis, the author of a history of the Liberian civil war and a researcher at the African Studies Center in the Netherlands.
"It's an obvious calculation. He withholds legitimacy from the government," Ellis said. "If it was felt by a large part of population to not be legitimate, in a place like Liberia, with its history, it becomes quite worrying."
Those who did make a point of going out to vote appeared to be entirely pro-Sirleaf, who was first elected in 2005 and was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month.
"It's about our future and our children's. Even if I don't want the government, it does not mean I can't vote," said Kollie Kennedy, who was waiting her turn at a polling station inside a Pentecostal church. "It's about Liberia."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Rebecca Blackwell contributed to this report.