Liberians vote in presidential run-off between football legend and ex-VP

EVELYN KPADEH SEAGBEH
15 Nov 2023 11:06am
A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Monrovia on Nov 14, 2023. (Photo by RAMI BALAGHI / AFP)
A voter casts his ballot at a polling station in Monrovia on Nov 14, 2023. (Photo by RAMI BALAGHI / AFP)
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MONROVIA, Liberia - Liberians were voting on Tuesday to decide whether to hand former football star George Weah a second term as president despite a mixed record or elect political veteran Joseph Boakai.

"I'm in the race to win", Boakai told AFP and other journalists outside his home near the capital Monrovia after casting his ballot.

He alleged that the ruling party was "panicking" and taking shortcuts including pre-marking ballots.

"We hear about all of that, but we are not afraid", he said.

Speaking to media after voting in the suburb of Paynesville, Weah called on Liberians to "exercise our franchise".

"The place is calm, everybody is voting and there's no tension -- that is democracy," the incumbent said -- the only African to win football's most prestigious individual award, the Ballon d'Or.

"I think the Liberian people will elect me," he added, crediting his government's "hard work".

Turnout appeared lower than in the first round of voting on October 10, with shorter queues outside polling centres around Monrovia, an AFP journalist saw.

Voting was taking place peacefully and there were no reports of major incidents or violence.

The head of the ECOWAS Election Observation Mission (EOM) to Liberia, Attahiru Jega, praised the "calm and order prevailing in the various voting centres visited" around Monrovia, the ECOWAS commission said in a statement.

"He stressed the need for a climate of peace, tolerance and consensus around the electoral process until its completion," the statement added.

The peaceful voting conduct was also commended by the former vice president of Zambia Nevers Mumba, who now leads the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy In Africa.

He said turnout appeared to be roughly two-thirds of the record 78.86 percent of the first round, when the presidential vote was coupled with parliamentary elections.

"This election is going to decide the future of this country," said Bestman Todawiah, 55, a school administrator voting in Monrovia.

"What I expect from this election is that (it) should be free, fair and transparent, and at the end of it, whoever wins becomes the president of this country."

The run-off is expected to be close between the rivals, who also faced off in 2017.

- Thin margin -

Last month, Weah, 57, and Boakai, 78, came roughly neck and neck on more than 43 percent, with the incumbent taking a 7,126-vote lead.

The elections are the first since the UN in 2018 ended its peacekeeping mission, created after more than 250,000 people died in two civil wars between 1989 and 2003.

More than 2.4 million people are registered to vote. Polls close at 6:00 pm (1800 GMT).

The incumbent is popular among young people but must defend his record in office, while Boakai is an old hand who has worked in both the public and private sectors.

Student Taiyee Success Iledare, 22, waiting to cast her ballot in the suburb of Duazon early Tuesday morning, said she would vote for Weah.

"When you look around you see a lot of development... When he wins I want him to make sure he deals with the issue of drugs", she said.

Irene Palwor, a 41-year-old petty trader said she backed Boakai.

"I feel that he will make a change... (He) will create job opportunities for the women and for the youth."

The electoral commission has 15 days to publish the results.

- Alliances -

Weah, who grew up in the slums of Monrovia, says he has supported education, built roads and hospitals, and brought electricity into homes.

He was president when the Covid-19 pandemic hit while Liberia was still recovering economically from back-to-back civil wars and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic.

His detractors say he is disconnected from the realities of skyrocketing prices and shortages.

More than a fifth of Liberians live on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank.

Boakai blames Weah for corruption, which is endemic in Liberia and has worsened on the incumbent's watch, according to Transparency International.

The former vice president has forged alliances with local barons, including ex-warlord and senator Prince Johnson, who supported Weah six years ago.

Clashes during the campaign left several dead and raised fears of post-election violence. - AFP

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