Mogadishu - Somalia's lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Monday for political newcomer Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to be the country's next president, with the streets of the capital erupting into celebratory gunfire.
The country's lawmakers were voting in the first poll of its kind in decades. The vote was billed by the United Nations as a milestone in the war-ravaged country's quest to end more than 20 years of violence, graft and clan feuds.
Mohamud, seen as a moderate, unexpectedly defeated incumbent President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed after two the four candidates who made it to the second round of voting opted out.
One of them, outgoing Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali who threw his weight behind Mohamud's candidacy, said the result heralded a new era for Somali politics.
“Somalia voted for change,” Ali told Reuters, adding it was too early to say if he would take part in the new administration.
There has been no effective central government control over most of the largely lawless country since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.
Monday's vote was seen as a culmination of a regionally brokered and UN-backed road map to end that conflict, during which tens of thousands were killed and many more fled.
The capital, which until last year witnessed street battles between al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab militants and African soldiers, is now a vibrant city, where reconstructed houses are slowly replacing bullet-riddled structures.
But despite being on the backfoot, the militants still control swathes of southern and central Somalia, while pirates, regional administrations and local militia group also vie for control chunks of the largely lawless Horn of Africa country.
The outgoing president conceded defeat after the onlookers in the hall where the vote was held spontaneously stood up and sang the national anthem.
Jabril Ibrahim Abdulle, director of the Centre of Research and Dialogue, a local non governmental organisation where Mohamud worked for eight years, said the result highlighted Ahmed's failure to quash the Islamist insurgency and improve living standards.
“He is benefiting from the fallout over Ahmed. This vote shows that the Somali people were yearning for change,” Abdulle said.
“His emphasis will be on institution-building and reconciliation. His biggest challenge will be the expectations of the people.”
Touching a Koran with his right hand, Mohamud was sworn in as president within minutes of his poll victory.
Somalia's president heads the executive while the speaker of parliament is considered the country's most powerful politician and steps in if the president is unable to fulfil his duties.
“It's D-day for Somalia,” lawmaker Abdirahim Abdi had said of the election in which more than two dozen candidates ran. “It's a turning point for Somalia and everyone's been waiting for it.”
Members of parliament marked their ballot papers behind a curtain before casting them in a clear box in front of foreign envoys and hundreds of Somali men and women as well as being broadcast live on television.
“Any elected president must cope with security first, then the reconstruction of social infrastructure, resettling the numerous (refugees) around the country and the liberation of the rest of the country from al-Shabaab,” said student Bashir Ali Abdikadir.
Mohamud will also have to tackle Somalia's reputation as the most corrupt country in the world.
In July, a UN Somalia monitoring group report said it had found that out of every $10 in revenue raised between 2009-2010 $7 had never made it into state coffers.
Despite the possibility that the entire process of selecting a new parliament whose members then elected the new president may have been flawed after allegations from a diplomatic source that lawmakers were being offered bribes, many Somalis were elated their country was holding an election of sorts.
“It's something we have to witness and be a part of, even if we're not voting. We've been through a very difficult labour and we're finally giving birth,” said Najmah Ahmed Abdi, who runs a Somali youth forum.
“The (lawmakers) have a momentous responsibility on their shoulders. Tomorrow will be like when US President Barack Obama was elected. We hope we get our own Obama.” - Reuters