MONROVIA Liberia tallied votes on Wednesday in a hotly contested presidential election pitting the incumbent, Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, against former U.N. diplomat Winston Tubman and 14 others.
The election in the West African state is a test of fragile gains since a 1989-2003 civil war that killed around a quarter of a million people and, if all goes smoothly, could pave the way for new investment in its mining and energy sectors.
"With the polls now closed, the reconciliation, sorting and subsequent counting of ballots has commenced," the National Election Commission said late on Tuesday. It said provisional results would be released on Thursday.
Many expect Tubman and Johnson-Sirleaf -- who received a boost days before the election last week with the Nobel award -- to qualify for a run-off vote against each other on November 11.
Voting on Tuesday passed peacefully in the capital Monrovia. Observer groups said they had received no reports of trouble elsewhere in the country of four million people, but have expressed concern that the results could be a flashpoint.
"We feel fine, the election was peaceful, there were no perturbances," said Boye Morgan, 52, one of a group of men drinking tea and chatting outside a shop on Carey Street, one of the capital's main thoroughfares.
The front pages of local newspapers carried banner headlines hailing the peaceful vote and the apparent high turnout, despite heavy rain during much of the day.
Liberia's New Democrat carried the headline "CDC To Accept Results If.," referring to the party of Tubman, which has said it is 100 percent confident he will win and that its supporters would reject defeat if the vote was not considered free and fair.
A dispute over the results of the 2005 election that brought Johnson-Sirleaf to power as Africa's first freely elected female head of state triggered days of rioting.
"I hope everybody, as I have appealed and appealed, will proceed peacefully and accept the results according to the rules," Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General Ellen Margreth Loj told Reuters on Tuesday. U.N. peacekeepers have been in the country since the war.
Eight years into peace, Liberia has seen growing investment in its iron and gold mines and has convinced donors to waive most of its debt, though many residents complain of a lack of basic services, high food prices, rampant crime and corruption.
A peaceful, free and fair election could bolster growing investor confidence in the country, which is also hoping to strike oil offshore.
Miners ArcelorMittal and BHP Billiton and oil companies Anadarko, Tullow and Chevron are active in the country.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Giles Elgood)