MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberians will vote next month in their first domestically organised election since a 1989-2003 civil war, but logistical problems could threaten the process and undo fragile gains made under President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
The stakes are high for the impoverished West African nation, still struggling to close the book on its bloody past eight years after the fighting ceased and eager to draw investment into its mining and energy sectors.
"It's a test of whether Liberians are ready to do politics by the ballot, and not the bullet," said Titilope Ajayi, a fellow at the International Crisis Group.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who became Africa's first woman head of state when she was elected in U.N.-organised polls in 2005, will seek re-election in the October 11 vote.
Electoral workers are now racing against the clock to complete preparations for the poll after a referendum turned down the government's proposal to delay it past the rainy season.
Now Liberian voters will have to contend with washed out roads in a country already notorious for a lack of working infrastructure. And while the United Nations is providing helicopters to move voting materials, the election commission says the final leg from regional warehouses to the polling stations in the bush will be tough.
"I am concerned as a Liberian, the way I see things.... the timeframe ..." said one former Liberian journalist who did not want to give his name.
The election will be the nation's second post-war presidential poll, but only the first one organised by local authorities instead of by the United Nations.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who has a stellar international reputation but an image problem at home for failing to fully root out government corruption, will face off against opposition leader Winston Tubman in what is expected to be a tight race.
"This will be the first multi-party election where the Liberians will have a transition from one democratically elected government to another (...) in their entire history," said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Ambassador in Monrovia.
The United Nations has said it is worried about potential violence around the election, particularly after the return of mercenaries from a civil war this year in neighbouring Ivory Coast, and said conduct during the poll could determine the drawdown schedule of its mission there.
Last month's referendum was seen by many as a dry-run for the presidential poll, and while it passed peacefully, turnout was low at 34 percent and a printing error on a ballot paper was an embarrassment to organisers.
"Because of the lesson learned from the referendum we are trying to make sure everything is prepared and set," Josiah Joekai, the special assistant to the chair of the National Elections Commission, said.
He said the NEC had sent delegates to its printers in Ghana and South Africa to ensure that the presidential ballots were mistake-free, and added the body would do its best to handle a tight turn-around for distributing them once the final list of candidates was announced.
While the international community emphasises the importance of Liberian ownership of the process, the U.N. mission is putting in place a shadow logistical plan so that it can step in should the task prove beyond the capacity of the NEC.
Analysts said organising a second-round run-off within the constitutionally required four-week period could prove difficult, particularly for the more complicated legislative election process which happens concurrently.
Analysts say turnout for the presidential poll will likely be much higher than for the referendum, which may have been hindered by Liberians' lack of familiarity with referendums and the failure to adequately explain such a process to a largely illiterate rural populace.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who has overseen some progress during her six years in office including the negotiation of debt relief, is considered the favourite in the election.
Her campaign slogan "Monkey Still Working Baboon Wait Small" is meant to imply she needs a second term to complete her agenda and is plastered on posters across Monrovia.
However, Johnson-Sirleaf's popularity within Liberia does not match her international support.
She is perceived to have failed to crack down on corruption, and has been criticised for breaking an earlier promise to stand for only one term.
"She failed to fight corruption; it's not a view, it's a fact. Corruption remains endemic in the administration," Acarous Gray, the secretary-general for Tubman's CDC party said.
Liberia ranked 87th out of 178 countries on Transparency International's corruption perceptions index in 2010, compared with 137th when she was elected in 2005.
Alongside the domestic rivalries, the conduct of the election could also determine the future role of the United Nations in the country. There are still 8,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia, at a cost of $500 million per year.
Ellen Margrethe Loj, the head of the U.N. mission, told Reuters that the schedule for the drawdown of the mission hinges on how the poll passes. "All the politicians have to denounce any kind of violence in relation to the election," she said.