Trailing candidate charges fraud in Liberia

Liberian presidential candidate George Weah holds up election ballots, saying they were pre-marked in favor of his opponent, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, on Wednesday.Ahmed Jallanzo / EPA via Sipa Press
/ Source: The Associated Press

Liberia’s top female politician took a strong early lead Wednesday in a presidential runoff as her millionaire soccer star opponent charged the vote was fraudulent, clouding elections that had raised hopes for peace in the war-ravaged country.

Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf had 56.4 percent of Tuesday’s vote with results in from 59 percent of polling stations across the country, the head of the National Election Commission said. George Weah had 43.6 percent.

Weah, at a news conference held Wednesday as election commission chairwoman Frances Johnson-Morris was speaking to reporters elsewhere in the capital, charged poll workers had plans to stuff ballot boxes in Johnson-Sirleaf’s favor. His allegations came despite U.N. assurances that the vote was clean.

Initial results were being reported as they came in, often from remote areas. It could take up to two weeks for the final outcome to be known.

Weah called on the election commission chief to step down.

“The world is saying this election was free and fair, which was not true,” Weah said, displaying 39 ballots marked for Johnson-Sirleaf that he claimed were among the extra ballots with which workers had been supplied. He said a concerned poll worker had handed the ballots over to his party.

“No Weah! No peace!” chanted hundreds of angry supporters at his headquarters. Soon afterward, two white U.N. tanks rode by as a helicopter surveyed the scene from above.

Johnson-Morris said Weah’s camp had not filed evidence of fraud with the electoral commission.

“If there is evidence, they need to share that evidence with us within 72 hours. That’s the rule,” she told reporters. “We have not gotten any complaints of that sort.”

No reports of fraud, U.N. mission says
Paul Risley, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Liberia, told The Associated Press “there have been no reports that we are aware of from yesterday’s polling that would indicate fraud of the nature that the CDC campaign is alleging.” The CDC is Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change party.

Risley also said the United Nations was awaiting reports of international domestic observers who monitored the vote.

Alan Doss, head of the U.N. mission in Liberia, had declared the vote “peaceful and transparent,” and Johnson-Morris had praised the vote and urged the candidates and the country to accept the results.

Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf, a former finance minister, finished first and second in the Oct. 11 first round, which weeded out 20 other candidates, including warlords and rebel leaders. Tuesday’s runoff was held because nobody won an outright majority in the first round.

From slums to stardom
Weah’s ascent from Monrovia’s slums to international soccer stardom had earned great appeal in a dirt-poor country short on heroes. He is a high school dropout with no experience in government, but that was seen as a plus by many in a country long ruled by coup leaders and warlords.

Johnson-Sirleaf boasts a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University and has a résumé full of top postings in government and the United Nations. But her role in past failed governments was seen as a drawback by some. If successful, she would become Africa’s first elected female president.

About 1.3 million people were registered to vote. Turnout Tuesday appeared lower than the first round, in which Weah took 28 percent to Johnson-Sirleaf’s 20 percent. A simple majority had been needed for outright victory.

Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Africa’s first republic was once among its most prosperous, rich in diamonds, ancient forests and rubber.

Years of war ended in 2003 when warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was forced to step down as advancing rebels shelled the capital.

A 15,000-strong U.N. force was deployed afterward and now supports a transitional government led by Gyude Bryant.