RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Liberians are going to the polls today, to vote for a new president and lawmakers in the second key elections, since the end of a long and vicious civil war back in 2003. The incumbent leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically-elected female president, has just been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But her opponents say she deserves neither the award nor re-election.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

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OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Liberia's election campaign has been enthusiastic, as 16 rival presidential candidates wooed voters. Almost two million Liberians are registered to select their new leader, with 81 legislative and 15 senatorial seats on offer.

This West African nation, settled by freed American slaves back in the 19th century, is the continent's oldest republic. But Liberia suffered deeply destructive, back-to-back civil wars from 1989 to 2003. It's still recovering and peace is the top priority.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ah Women.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Women.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Women, what we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Peace.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: What we want?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Peace.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And when we want peace?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) We want peace, no more war. We want peace, no more war.

QUIST-ARCTON: We want peace, no more war, chant these Liberian women as they greeted their two freshly-anointed Nobel Peace Prize winners, in the shabby capital, Monrovia, over the weekend. The 72 year-old president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is the joint recipient of the Nobel Award, with a Yemeni democracy activist and Liberian peace and women's rights' campaigner, Leymah Gbowee. Gbowee says she's endorsing the president.

LEYMAH GBOWEE: Who else? She's done a great job. Yes! That's a yes.

QUIST-ARCTON: But not all Liberians are backing Johnson Sirleaf for a second term. After six years in office, despite her impressive international and financial credentials, Liberia's president, a Harvard-trained former finance minister, and ex-U.N. and World Bank executive, is facing stiff competition.

WINSTON TUBMAN: We Liberians can't see any reason why she should be given this honor. It's undeserved. She doesn't deserve this honor.

QUIST-ARCTON: That's her toughest presidential opponent, Winston Tubman. He's also a Harvard grad and a former U.N. diplomat. Speaking to the BBC, Tubman questioned both the merit of the Nobel Peace Award and the timing.

TUBMAN: She is a war-monger. She didn't stop the war at all. And now that the war has stopped, she wants to stay on top of the country as if she's some liberator – she's not.

QUIST-ARCTON: Liberia's president is swift to respond that, while she's honored to be a joint Nobel peace prize laureate, she's aware that's not what Liberians will be judging her on. Johnson Sirleaf says her record, maintaining peace and promoting reconciliation and development will be the factors in the vote.

PRESIDENT ELLEN JOHNSON SIRLEAF: I'm optimistic. I think I've worked hard in these last six years to build Liberia, to set it up for a better future. You cannot rebuild a broken country in six years. This country was totally destroyed and we've made a lot of progress. We still have a few things to do, to consolidate the gains, to preserve the peace, to keep bringing the development. And who can do it better than someone who has the experience to do it.

QUIST-ARCTON: After 14 years of civil war, and eight years free of armed conflict, Liberians are still protected by United Nations peacekeepers. Critics say, despite all the international aid and investment, progress has been sluggish.

Liberians are still waiting for the delivery of past election campaign promises – jobs, a steady supply of electricity and running water, and proper healthcare and improved education, and an end to rampant corruption. If no one candidate wins an outright majority today, the presidential vote goes to a run-off.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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