MONROVIA Liberia tallied votes on Wednesday in a hotly-contested presidential poll pitting the incumbent, Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, against former U.N. diplomat Winston Tubman and 14 others.
The election in the West African state is a test of its fragile gains since the 1989-2003 civil war that killed nearly a quarter of a million people and, if all goes smoothly, could pave the way for new investment in its mining and energy sectors.
"With the polls now closed, the reconciliation, sorting and subsequent counting of ballots has commenced," the National Election Commission said late on Tuesday in a statement. It said provisional results would be released on Thursday.
The constitution gives it 15 days to finalize results.
The voting on Tuesday passed peacefully in the capital Monrovia and international observer groups said they had received no reports of trouble elsewhere in the country of 4 million people.
But passions have run high in the contest that some forecast will go to a second-round run-off between Johnson-Sirleaf and Tubman. Observers have expressed concern that the results could be a flashpoint for street clashes.
A dispute over the results of the 2005 election that brought Johnson-Sirleaf to power as Africa's first freely elected female head of state triggered days of rioting.
"I hope everybody, as I have appealed and appealed, will proceed peacefully and accept the results according to the rules," Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General Ellen Margreth Loj told Reuters on Tuesday. U.N. peacekeepers have been in the country since the war.
Eight years into peace, Liberia has seen growing investment in its iron and gold mines and has convinced donors to waive most of its debt, though many residents complain of a lack of basic services, high food prices, rampant crime and corruption.
A peaceful, free and fair election could bolster growing investor confidence in the country, which is also hoping to strike oil offshore.
Miners ArcelorMittal and BHP Billiton and oil companies Anadarko, Tullow and Chevron are active in the country.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Janet Lawrence)