15 October 2005

Liberians Look Towards Runoff As Vote Counts Nears Completion

Monrovia — With nearly three-quarters of the ballots counted in Liberia's presidential election, it appears that no single candidate will receive more than half the votes needed to win an outright victory.

Unless the front-runner, soccer-player-turned-politician George O. Weah grabs almost all remaining ballots, he is likely to face Harvard-educated banker Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a two-candidate runoff tentatively scheduled for November 8. Charles Brumskine, in third place, would need to receive at least half the remaining ballots to come in second, ahead of Sirleaf.

According to results released by the National Elections Commission (NEC) at a Saturday morning briefing, Weah received 32.2 percent of the tally this far, compared with 18.6 percent for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and 10.6 percent for Charles Brumskine. Varney Sherman, whose share shot above 10 percent after he won almost the entirety of the western county of Capemount, dropped to 9.4 percent in latest tabulation.

The results from the first round of campaigning reflect a divided electorate, with the biggest gap being the gap between youthful and older voters. Weah?s campaign relied heavily on his star image, and his managers succeeded in shielding him from political confrontation with other candidates. Soccer is immensely popular throughout Liberia. In every restaurant and bar and in the video clubs that have replaced movie theaters destroyed by the war, young Liberians watch satellite sport channels beaming soccer matches from around the world twenty-four hours a day.

One week prior to the elections, when Zambia's national team was in Monrovia for a world cup qualification match against Liberia's Lone Stars, security forces required that the game be played behind closed-doors, with a media black-out, out of concern that Lone Stars supporters might go on a rampage if the national team lost, as expected. The team did lose, but no major incidents resulted.

The two likely opponents in the second round could not be more different. Weah, who is 39, has little formal education and no political experience. Sirleaf, 66, is a veteran campaigner, having run for the Senate in 1985, when she garnered the most votes in the race, and for president in 1997, in a last-ditch effort to defeat the incumbent and former rebel leader, Charles Taylor, whose victory was followed by a resumption of civil war and his eventual departure into exile under intense international pressure two years ago. Sirleaf would become Africa?s first elected head of state is she wins the contest.

Weah's stardom elevated him into front-runner status from the beginning. But some political observers believe he may have trouble adding significantly to his total in a second round. Sirleaf is expected to gain the votes of many partisans who backed her various other candidates, including Brumskine, Winston Tubman, Alhaji Kromah and Togbana Tipoteh. A few of the contenders, including former Transitional Assembly Speaker George Dweh and Yaya Nimley, who was a leader of one of the warring factions, have already joined the Weah camp.

Although the elections commission has not received any official complaints from political parties or candidates, media reports have suggested some irregularities may have occurred. In a few cases, poll workers are said to have influenced the vote of 'illiterate' voters, who may not have been able to distinguish the picture of their preferred candidate on the crowded ballot paper and relied on the poll watchers to guide their choice.

Because very few polling places had electricity, most counting took place by candlelight or flashlight. At her Saturday morning briefing, the NEC chair, Frances Johnson Morris, said such problems would be addressed as preparations are made for the second round.

A large portion of uncounted ballots are those in Montserrado County, near the capital, where the commission has said the tally station was initially understaffed. Results from other inaccessible places where ballots were airdropped are still arriving in Monrovia.

RESULTS from Liberia's National Elections Commission

Liberia

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