Fraud charged in Liberia's first one-man, one-vote election

When Liberian Commander in Chief Samuel Doe drove up to Monrovia's city hall last week, there were few cheers. A crowd watched silently as he stepped out to vote in the nation's election. It was a serious-looking President Doe who reminded the nation in an election-eve TV broadcast: ``We have kept our pledge and encouraged real democracy for the first time.''

But some observers here are raising questions about exactly how democratic Liberia's first one-man, one-vote elections have been. Despite a massive turnout and peaceful and orderly voting, the three opposition parties expressed strong reservations about ballot counting -- the results of which will be officially announced toward the end of the month.

The introduction of universal suffrage has helped expand Liberia's electorate to 800,000. But there is widespread suspicion that Doe will remain in power regardless of the outcome of the vote. There was evidence of heavy voting in favor of the opposition Liberia Action Party.

Doe enjoys the support of the government-controlled media. The only posters seen in the capital city of Monrovia supported Doe with slogans like ``Son of the Soil'' and ``The People's Choice.''

Refuting charges of electoral violations, chairman of the Special Elections Commission (SECOM), Emmet Harmon said ``We've been honest from start to finish.'' But, he added, claims of irregularities at Monrovia city hall and other polling centers are being investigated.

The main controversy centers on the last-minute creation of polling stations at the Barclay Training Center in Monrovia. The Liberia Action Party and the Unity Party protested that, in the absence of official observers, soldiers and their families, including young children, voted many times. Voters' fingers are usually marked with indelible ink to prevent multiple voting but there was no evidence of this procdure at the training center. At other centers the indelible ink apparently wasn't indelible and i n one district a notice was posted advising voters not to shake hands after voting.

The apparently illegal military voting centers were first exposed by the local Roman Catholic radio station. Station manager Charlotte Mae-Phelps said the ``Barclay Training Center was not a designated voting center.'' She said many were unable to vote as voting centers had not been identified in SECOM documents.

Still, Liberians turned out in large numbers. ``They were proud to vote. It was like a religious experience for them,'' one Western observer said. ``This is the first time in my life I've been able to vote and I'm not going to miss the opportunity,'' an elderly teacher said.

Some upcountry Liberians walked for half a day in order to be able to vote. Unable to read or write they told election officials whom they wished to vote for.

``Irregularities were mainly due to ignorance and different interpretation of electoral laws rather than deliberate intent,'' said a Western observer. ``It will be difficult to blatantly rig the results.''

SECOM's Mr. Harmon no doubt hopes his decision to set up an independent commission to count the votes will help dispel accusations of electoral fraud. But the opposition have already cast doubts on the committee's neutrality, saying it contravenes electoral law.

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