* EU, Carter Center praise largely calm, peaceful elections
* But EU saw "unequal playing field" during campaigning
* Feverish expectation in Freetown ahead of results
By Simon Akam and Pascal Fletcher
FREETOWN, Nov 19 Sierra Leone's elections were
generally well conducted, saw a large turnout, and will help
consolidate democracy in the West African state if the eventual
results are accepted peacefully by the contenders, European and
U.S. observers said on Monday.
While praising Saturday's voting as largely calm and
peaceful, the 100-strong European Union observer mission said
however it noted "some shortcomings", including an "unequal
playing field" during pre-election campaigning that favoured the
ruling party of President Ernest Bai Koroma.
Votes were still being tallied from the presidential and
parliamentary polls, the third national vote held since
1991-2002 civil war that earned the country international
notoriety as a "blood diamonds" battleground for rebels and
After a decade of recovery from the conflict, Sierra Leone's
leaders and aid donors hope that new iron ore mining projects
and oil discoveries can propel the war-scarred country - still
one of the poorest in the world - into a new era of growth with
increased prosperity for its 5.5 million people.
Since polls closed, feverish expectation has gripped the
steamy coastal capital Freetown. In homes, offices and roadside
markets, citizens were keeping portable radios glued to their
ears as they listened to partial results from polling stations.
Electoral officials said full results could be announced
either as early as Tuesday or on Wednesday.
Many predict a close-fought contest between Koroma and his
ruling All People's Congress (APC) and main challenger Julius
Maada Bio, a former junta leader who represents the Sierra Leone
People's Party (SLPP).
"We describe this election as being well-conducted ... a
contribution to democratic consolidation," EU chief observer
Richard Howitt told a news conference in Freetown.
A smaller observer mission from the Atlanta-based Carter
Center gave a similar assessment.
"The process was conducted with a high degree of
transparency ... I was extremely impressed," the Carter Center's
mission chief, former Zambian President Rupiah Banda, told
reporters. He too cited "limited shortcomings".
The EU mission said it believed Sierra Leone's National
Electoral Commission (NEC) was behaving with independence and
impartiality and that the integrity of the election process so
far was being protected.
To win outright, a candidate must gain 55 percent of the
vote and the race may well go to a second round. With rivalry
between the APC and the SLPP running high, there are concerns a
close result could ignite violence.
"If the election continues to be well conducted and if there
continues to be integrity, I hope there will be peaceful
acceptance of the results," Howitt said, adding that this was
the message he had conveyed to the main party leaders.
The vote is expected to be close. Former insurance executive
Koroma, 59, who wrested the presidency from the SLPP in a
disputed 2007 vote, is considered the narrow favourite above
Bio, a 48-year-old retired army brigadier who was involved in
two military takeovers in the turbulent 1990s.
Bio said in a statement his party had detected vote
"irregularities" in Freetown and elsewhere, including "evidence
of blatant ballot-stuffing".
The EU's Howitt cited a "low number" of irregularities
reported so far. He said all complaints would be investigated.
Voters were eagerly awaiting the results. "We need a good,
development-minded government," Jeremiah Komba Jimissa, 27, who
runs the IT network at a Freetown hotel, said.
"We've come 10 years from the war, we're not going to go
back," Jimissa, added, reflecting a repeatedly expressed view
among Sierra Leoneans that they above all did not want the
country to slide back into conflict.
Although ethnic allegiances still shape Sierra Leone's
electoral landscape - Koroma's APC draws support from the Temne
and Limba peoples of the north, while the Mende of the south and
east traditionally vote SLPP - both candidates face pressure to
convert the mineral riches into jobs and improved livelihoods.
Iron ore shipments by British companies African Minerals
and London Mining are expected to buoy the
economy to 20 percent growth this year - below original
forecasts of more than 50 percent but still one of the highest
growth rates on the planet.