The people of Liberia, Africa's oldest republic, went to the polls yesterday for their first presidential and legislative elections by universal suffrage. The man most experts say will be returned to the presidency is Samuel Kanyon Doe, who no longer wears the lean and hungry look of the master sergeant who shot his way to power in a coup five years ago.
Gone, too, are the battle fatigues and machine guns that characterized the nervous early days of Doe in power. President Doe, now a five-star general and Commander-in-Chief of the country's armed forces, now prefers smart three-piece business suits.
Balloting began Tuesday in an orderly fashion, but the results will not be known for 10 to 14 days because all ballots must be counted by hand.
The two potentially most serious challengers to Mr. Doe's new status were barred from competing. Gabriel Mathews, the 33-year-old leader of the United People's Party and Doe's former foreign minister, was disqualified by a special election commission for being ``too socialist.''
Prof. Amos Sawyer, leader of the Liberian People's Party and architect of the country's new Constitution, was barred, pending completion of an audit of expenses incurred by the constitutional drafting committee.
Doe, who has shown a talent for survival after numerous coup and assassination attempts, has no intention of giving up power. He is prepared, after prompting from the United States and other aid donors, to legitimize his power through the election process.
When he discovered that he was below the minimum age limit for presidential candidates (35 years of age) he simply added the necessary years to his official birthday.
The presence of two Does among the four presidential candidates allowed to run may have increased the scope of confusion, if not chances for vote-rigging. Jackson Doe, education minister during the previous administration, ran as the candidate of the Liberia Action Party. The other candidates were Edward Kesselly, leader of the small Unity Party, and Gabriel Kopteh of the Liberia Unification Party.
President Doe feels he is much maligned by the foreign press. He likes to point out that he ended 133 years of political domination by the minority Americo-Liberians -- descendants of freed American slaves who created the republic in 1847.
A member of the Krahn tribe from the south near the Liberian border, Doe has tried to improve conditions for the neglected and poorly educated indigenous tribes by giving them more jobs in government and public administration.
His initial popularity was increased when he decided to double civil-service salaries and give the military even greater pay increases and better housing. He later had to backtrack in order to meet International Monetary Fund spending restrictions.
Doe also ordered that the Constitution be revised and that the right to vote be given to all Liberians over 18 years of age. Previously, only wealthy landowners -- mainly Americo-Liberians -- could vote. Liberia is also one of the rare countries in Africa where multi-party elections are held or where candidates can contest the presidency.
After initial radical rhetoric condemning imperialism and a brief flirtation with the Libyans and Soviets, Doe has shown himself to be a staunch -- if sometimes unpredictable -- ally of the US and the West. Diplomatic links with the Soviet Union were severed earlier this year.
Liberia recognized Israel in September 1983, and the Liberian and Israeli presidents have exchanged visits.
Doe has continued to give the US military airfield facilities and to use powerful Voice of America radio transmitters and satellite tracking stations.
Lacking experience in government and having failed to earn a high-school diploma, Doe has relied heavily on American technical expertise and financial aid, which has risen steeply to nearly $100 million a year from $8 million in 1979.
Relations with the US have become strained of late, following US insistence on holding ``free and fair'' elections. Additional strain came from the US registering its concern over the deterioration in Liberia's economy.
In the weeks just prior to elections, tension mounted and Doe became increasingly authoritarian, banning parties and imprisoning opponents for obscure reasons.
Liberia's financial crisis and escalating unemployment have undermined the President's popularity. But analysts here say that so long as he is able to cater to the material interests of the Army and present himself as the champion of the underprivileged indigenous tribes, he should stay in power.