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Liberia's referendum goes off peacefully, despite opposition boycott

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Rebecca Blackwell/AP

(Read caption) Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf looks on during the closing session of the 17th African Union Summit, at Sipopo Conference Center, outside Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, on July 1. Referendum votes on Tuesday could give incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf a boost heading into Liberia's pivotal presidential election.

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Weeks ahead of a pivotal presidential election, citizens of the war-battered West African nation of Liberia headed to the polls on Tuesday to cast their votes in the country’s first national referendum in more than 25 years.

The vote, the results of which will be announced in about two weeks, will answer four key questions about the nation’s politics, three of which have an immediate bearing on the upcoming presidential and legislative elections.

The most contentious item on the ballot would lower the residency requirement for presidential candidates from 10 years to five, a shift that could significantly expand the pool of people running in this year’s election. If approved, the measure would likely benefit incumbent President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, splitting the votes among a broad field of challengers.

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Another proposition would change the date of the upcoming election, pushing it from Oct. 11 to Nov. 8. The shift, proponents say, would help officials avoid the logistical problems associated with conducting an election during the rainy season, which brings about 17 feet of rain to the country every year, tapering off in November.

A third proposition would eliminate the requirement for an absolute majority in municipal elections, while a fourth would increase the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75.

The referendum went off without any major incidents on Tuesday, but turnout was low and there were some significant logistical and political problems, which highlight the serious challenges the country will face when it returns to the polls later this year.

Just days before the vote, the leading opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change, called on the country’s 1.7 million registered voters to boycott the referendum, on the grounds that all four of the propositions on the ballot unduly favored the ruling Unity Party.

“We are not joining those who want to slaughter the constitution for selfish reasons,” Acarous Moses Gray, the secretary-general of the CDC, told The Associated Press.

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The vote went ahead, but on Tuesday morning it was revealed that the ballots, which had been printed in Denmark, contained a significant typo. Instead of asking voters to choose either 70 or 75 as the retirement age for judges, the ballot gave them the same option twice: 75.

Election officials quickly began posting signs at polling places that explained the error, but in a country where just over half of the population is literate, such mistakes are not easily righted.

“We don't understand some of the features on the ballots; we don't know what we are voting for,” Jerome Seo of Monrovia told the BBC on Tuesday as he waited in line to vote.

But despite the logistical problems and calls for a boycott, the referendum went ahead peacefully. That’s a significant achievement, given that the country is just eight years out of a brutal civil war that left 150,000 people dead and close to a million displaced.

More than 9,000 UN peacekeepers are still based in the country, and they will be staying on for at least another year. The blue helmets paraded a fleet of tanks through the capital, Monrovia, over the weekend, in a show of strength on the eve of the referendum.

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