A runoff election likely will be needed to decide Liberia’s presidential race, with early returns showing a former soccer star running closely with the country’s most popular female politician, officials said Thursday.
Initial results from Tuesday’s presidential balloting — Liberia’s first since the end of a 14-year civil war — showed George Weah and Harvard-educated politician Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf leading the field of 22 candidates. No one appeared likely to get the simple majority required to avoid a runoff, said National Electoral Commission Chairman Frances Morris.
“So far, the leading candidates have been running neck-to-neck,” Morris told reporters.
With only a sliver of the total votes counted, Johnson-Sirleaf had 25 percent of the vote and Weah had 21 percent. Morris did not release updated figures Thursday.
Runoff would come in November
It was expected to take days for the count to show a clear trend. Results must be posted within 15 days, although a final tally is expected earlier.
A second round of voting, if necessary, would take place in early November.
Weah’s rise from a Monrovia slum to athletic stardom has captivated much of Liberia’s youth — including many among the 100,000 demobilized fighters who raped, pillaged and murdered during the civil war. His critics have said he has neither the education nor the management experience to govern Liberia’s 3 million people.
Johnson-Sirleaf is one of Liberia’s most experienced economists and administrators. She has worked for the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program and has held several Liberian Cabinet posts.
Her detractors, however, have said she’s part of a political class that has only led to Liberia’s ruination and needs to be swept aside. If voted into office, her campaign says she would become Africa’s first elected female president.
Voters also cast ballots for 30 senators and 64 representatives — a bicameral system modeled on that of the United States. Freed slaves from the United States were resettled here before they founded Africa’s oldest republic in 1847.
A transitional government arranged the election after a peace accord was signed in 2003 to end one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts and 15,000 U.N. peacekeepers kept the calm.
No reports of intimidation or fraud
Turnout among the West African country’s 1.3 million registered voters was about 70 percent. Morris has said there have been no reports of intimidation or fraud.
On Thursday, former Liberian rebel leader and presidential candidate Sekou Conneh pledged to accept the election’s outcome.
“Whatever the results, we will accept it and quickly get together to rebuild the country,” Conneh told The Associated Press.
“I am one of the happiest people today,” he said. “The very reason why we took arms was to put democracy back on track in our country and that is what is happening today.”
Conneh, a former political leader of the main rebel group that fought to oust warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor, is not considered a leading contender.
Mineral-rich Liberia, once one of the most prosperous countries in Africa, fell into civil war in 1989 when Taylor launched his insurgency.
Taylor won elections during an interlude in fighting in 1997, but another rebellion broke out in 2000. Under heavy international pressure, Taylor stepped down and left the country in 2003, and a peace deal was quickly signed.