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Mogadishu - Somali lawmakers on Monday picked a new president, in what UN brokers have billed as a historic vote for the war-torn nation but observers fear will only return the same fractious and corrupt leaders.
Parliament Speaker Mohamed Osman Jawari, elected by his peers in August, was the first to cast his vote in the presidential poll where 25 candidates are in the running, including the outgoing transitional president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed.
The election is the final stage of a UN-backed process to set up a new administration for the war-torn country.
The new parliamentarians, selected last month by a group of traditional elders, rose one after the other amid tight security to cast their ballots in a packed room at the police academy.
African Union and UN security officials conducted body searches and fingerprint checks on all those allowed anywhere near the venue.
A candidate needs to take two-thirds of the vote to win outright, otherwise the top four candidates will go into a second round, with a third round for the final two. The final winner will be selected by a simple majority.
Each candidate had to pay $10,000 (7,900 euros) to enter the race.
The election has been delayed several times, missing an August 20 deadline, and international pressure has increased on parliament to choose a president swiftly.
The UN's special representative for Somalia, Augustine Mahiga, said Monday said that while obstacles remain, the presidential election will “mark another milestone in the country's political process”.
He called on legislators to select “the best candidate as the leader for their nation”.
The lawmakers assembled at a venue at Mogadishu airport after having their fingerprints checked.
Civil society representatives flocked as close as they were permitted, engaging in heated debate about the best candidate.
Analysts have been gloomy on the process, suggesting it offers little but a reshuffling of key figures and positions from the outgoing Western-backed government.
Somalia has lacked an effective central government since president Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991, unleashing cycles of bloody conflict that have defied countless peace initiatives.
Ruthless warlords and militia groups including Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents have controlled mini-fiefdoms that African Union troops and other forces have only recently started to capture.
Outgoing president Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, in power since 2009, is one of the favourites, although he cuts a controversial figure with Western observers.
A UN report in July said that under his presidency, “systematic embezzlement, pure and simple misappropriation of funds and theft of public money have become government systems” Ä claims Sharif has rejected.
“I am absolutely honest and no money will be involved in my re-election,” Sharif told AFP in an interview Monday.
He also warned parliamentarians against the temptation to vote along clan lines.
“People should vote for me in good faith because they have followed my track record of development and my fight against the extremism of Al-Shebab and Al-Qaeda,” he said, promising to wipe out the Islamist groups in Somalia and “eliminate terror from the region” if re-elected.
Outgoing prime minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali, a US-educated economist, is another strong candidate.
The rival challengers have had bitter arguments, divided along Somalia's notoriously fractious clan lines, and the UN Security Council has repeatedly warned of “intimidation and corruption”, threatening “action against individuals whose acts threaten the peace, stability or security of Somalia”.
However, Britain's ambassador to Somalia, Matt Baugh, said last week that both the outgoing president and prime minister had assured him of “their commitment to respect (the) election outcome”. - Sapa-AFP