MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberians gathered in masses under the bright sun Tuesday to vote in an election that for the first time in more than 70 years will see one democratically elected government hand power to another.
As Africa's first female president prepares to step aside, there are fears that if the results aren't accepted the tensions and violence of Liberia's past could rise again.
"This election now is crucial and important because as you can see the peace is very fragile right now and we need a smooth transition from one government to another," said Stevera Toh, a 32-year-old accountant. "So we have to vote wisely and make the right decision for our country, our kids and generations."
Toh was among thousands who lined up well before sunrise to vote in Monrovia's Paynesville suburb.
Voter Andrea Kamara, a 27-year-old marketing consultant, said Liberia needs development.
"Whoever gets into office needs to focus on infrastructure, education and sustaining the peace," she said.
Liberia's health system was decimated by the Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 5,000 Liberians in 2014-2015 and posed the biggest challenge for Nobel Prize-winning President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She led Liberia's transition from a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003 after killing more than 250,000 people.
More than 2.1 million voters have registered to vote at nearly 5,400 polling stations throughout this West African country that was established by the United States in the 19th century for freed black slaves.
Twenty presidential candidates are vying for a majority in the first round of elections on Tuesday, while nearly 1,000 candidates from 26 political parties fight for 73 seats in the House of Representatives.
Given the high number of presidential candidates, it is unlikely anyone will win more than 50 percent of the vote, taking the elections to a second round, likely in November.
Frontrunner Vice President Joseph Boakai, 72, told The Associated Press he doesn't expect a second round.
"But if there is a second round, it is something that we will want to be a part of," he said. Voter turnout was impressive, he said after voting in the eastern Paynesville suburb. Boakai told reporters if he wins, "we are not going to be a donor-driven country, Liberians are going to build their economy."
His main contender is 51-year-old former international soccer star, George Weah. His running mate is Jewel Howard-Taylor, the ex-wife of former President Charles Taylor, who is jailed for war crimes.
Weah ran against Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2005, winning in the first round but losing to her in the second.
Another top candidate, ex-warlord Prince Johnson, who videotaped himself as his fighters tortured and killed President Samuel Doe in 1990, has expressed doubt about Weah's ability to govern.
The only female vying for the presidency is international model MacDella Cooper, 41, who has promised she would take only $1 a year as salary if she is elected
Charles Brumskine, former leader of the senate during the regime of Charles Taylor, promises change, and says he'd cut his and his vice president's salary by 30 percent.
Taking the reins from outgoing leader Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who has brought Liberia international attention, will not be easy. But Liberia's transfer of power stands as an example in Africa where other leaders cling to power.
"It is an historic day for our nation, and for the consolidation of Liberia's young democracy," Sirleaf said Monday. "Let us take a moment to reflect on how far we have come, as a nation, and as a people, from a society destroyed by conflict and war, to one of the most vibrant democracies in the West Africa region."
International observer missions are in the country to watch the polls. Final results for the first round are expected to be announced by Oct. 25.
Liberian security forces, led by the police, are for the first time since 2003 in charge of polls. The United Nations peacekeeping mission handed security responsibilities over two years ago. The 5,000-strong police force is being supported by a new army of about 2,000 troops who are on standby.
Police have worked at "building trust and confidence" in the public ahead of the election, police chief Gregory Coleman told AP.
Associated Press writer Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal contributed to this report.