Supporters of Somalia's outgoing president, Sheik Sharif Sheik… (Abdi Wahab Mohamed, AFP/Getty…)
MOGADISHU, Somalia — Lawmakers overwhelmingly elected an academic and civic activist as president of Somalia on Monday, in a United Nations-backed effort to put the country's lawless past behind it and forge its first stable central government in more than two decades.
Hassan Sheik Mohamud defeated about two dozen other candidates, including two outgoing leaders, President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed and Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali. The victor, a former UNICEF official and founder of the opposition Peace and Development Party, is seen as a progressive.
Ahmed, who came in second, was accused in a recent U.N. report of running a deeply corrupt government. The report said that under Ahmed's rule, "systematic embezzlement, pure and simple misappropriation of funds and theft of public money have become government systems." Ahmed has denied the claims.
Questions remain about whether Mohamud will face violent opposition from clan warlords and whether the losing candidates will accept the results. Mohamud faces a delicate task in appointing a new government that will balance the interests of Somalia's competing clans.
No candidate won the needed two-thirds of votes among lawmakers to win in the first round; Ahmed moved on to the second round with 64 votes and Mohamud with 60. Mohamud won the second round, 190 to 79.
Ahmed said he would accept the results. "I am happy to see the first free and fair election happen in Somalia after 40 years," he said, according to the Associated Press. "I want to declare that I am fully satisfied with the results."
Somalia has had no effective central government since the 1991 overthrow of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, which led to infighting between warlords, Islamic militancy, piracy and kidnappings. Government services such as decent hospitals are almost nonexistent.
After more than a dozen failed efforts to create a new government, many Somalis hope Monday's vote marks a turning point. In the weeks before the final vote, they expressed hopeful trepidation, with many calling for new faces and a shift from the divisive and corrupt politics of the past.
The hope was shared Monday by some lawmakers.
"I strongly believe that Hassan Sheik Mohamud is the only person who can overcome the chronic anarchy in Somalia," lawmaker Amina Mohamed Abdi said. Added another, Bibi Qalif Mohamed: "Somalia has been in chaos for a long time. But now many scholars are in the parliament and in the top posts, so we are hoping for tangible progress in every sector, especially security."
Critics have said vote buying and corruption in the process of creating a new central government still threaten to undermine its legitimacy before it is even formed. A recent report by the International Crisis Group said the political process was riddled "with unprecedented levels of political interference, corruption and intimidation."
But Mohamud's election suggested that despite the flaws, the process was still capable of giving rise to new leadership, outside the unpopular transition government.
The vote was being closely watched by the international community, which underwrote the expensive, eight-year transition. The previous transitional government's mandate expired last month.
The major fear is that powerful figures who miss out on key government positions won't accept defeat gracefully, ushering in a new era of inter-clan conflict. Last week the U.S. State Department urged the presidential candidates to accept the new government and refrain from undermining it or inciting violence.
The vote was made possible in large part by the weakening of the Shabab, an Al Qaeda-linked militia that controlled most of the country until August 2011, when its fighters withdrew from the capital, Mogadishu. It has since lost more territory, and African Union forces are fighting to dislodge the Shabab from its most important remaining base, the port of Kismayo, the militia's main source of revenue from tax and trade.
Despite the problems, there has been important progress. Somalia approved a new constitution last month that, although divisive, endorses equal rights for all Somalis regardless of clan and gender. Controversial clauses include outlawing of female genital excision, which remains deeply entrenched in Somalia, and protection of the right to an abortion in cases where it is needed to save a pregnant woman's life.
Special correspondent Mohammed reported from Mogadishu and Times staff writer Dixon from Johannesburg, South Africa.