* Voting ends in Liberian referendum
* Ballot over election framework to test poll readiness
* Low turnout due to lack of interest, poor transport
MONROVIA, Aug 23 (Reuters) - Liberians voted on Tuesday in a referendum held to decide how an election later this year will be run, and to measure the country’s progress towards peace and reconciliation eight years after civil war ended.
Observers and polling officials had said they expected a low turnout because of the lack of interest and transport problems, and no official turnout figures were released when voting ended.
“This centre registered over 3,000 people, but today not even one thousand people came to vote,” said Lister Kandakai, a polling agent at one of the capital’s polling stations.
Results of the referendum are expected in two weeks.
Since years of conflict ended in 2003, Liberia has signed billions of dollars’ worth of mining, farming and oil deals, but stability remains fragile, with many young jobless people and a recently ended conflict in neighbouring Ivory Coast, and 9,000 United Nations peacekeepers remain in the country.
Many people did not vote because some politicians who had transported voters to register for the presidential election, did not provide transport for the referendum, said Liberia’s roving ambassador Mohammed Shereiff.
The referendum will decide whether the presidential election should be pushed back from October to November, residency requirements for presidential candidates and how lawmakers will be voted in.
Nana Adu Ampofo, analyst at Songhai Advisory, said the questions put in the referendum did not imply dramatic changes to the Liberian political system.
“Should the referendum be rejected, the NEC (National Election Commission) will have less time to organise the general election, and Johnson-Sirleaf’s candidacy will be disputed by... opponents,” he said.
“Similarly, if the ‘yes’ vote takes the day, imperfect voter registration may give rise to legal challenges,” Ampofo said.
The referendum has raised tension in the west African nation and divided opinion between those backing the referendum and those seeing it as an attempt by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to strengthen her hold on power.
The vote will also test preparations for the first Liberian-run election after a U.N.-backed poll in 2005 and indicate how long peacekeepers supporting fragile state security forces must remain in the country.
Underscoring concerns about the potential for trouble, Ellen Margrethe Loj, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Liberia, appealed on Monday for a peaceful vote.
“I appeal to everybody not to be tempted to resort to violence; not to be dragged into violence, but agree that your voice is heard through the ballot paper,” she said on UN radio.
One issue the 1.8 million registered voters must decide on is a rise in the retirement age of Supreme Court judges to 75.
The National Election Commission said some ballot papers had been misprinted and did not give voters the choice of keeping the retirement age at 70, causing confusion among voters.
“This is a clear way for the ruling party to cheat us. I do not think this is an error. They did this only to test us. We will not sit here for these people to cheat us,” said Richamond Dahn, a supporter of the opposition CDC party.
Other voters said they would save the cash needed to travel to polling stations for election day, and would not take part in the referendum.
Sirleaf, a former World Bank official who has won widespread international praise for her work rebuilding the country, is still struggling to convince many at home that change is coming fast enough.
The CDC party of former international soccer star George Weah called for a boycott and others called for a ‘no’ vote.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank warned earlier this month that the election in Liberia would hinge on how well the election commission handled the referendum and opposition perceptions of its support for the ruling party.
Firms like ArcelorMittal and BHP Billiton have iron ore mines in the country and vast tracts of palm oil concessions have been snapped up, including one by Malaysia’s Sime Darby. Chevron and Anadarko are leading the oil exploration drive.
The mandate for the U.N.’s peacekeeping force is due for renewal next month but mission chief Loj restated her view that any draw-down must not be too swift.
“First let us all work together to have free, fair, and peaceful elections and no violence and then we will look at the way forward,” she said.