October 12, 2005

Economist, soccer star lead field in Liberia polls

By Nick Tattersall

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Former Finance Minister Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf and soccer star George Weah emerged as early
front-runners on Wednesday in Liberia's first post-war
elections, officials said, citing initial results.

Expectation gripped the West African country after an
enthusiastic turnout in the presidential and parliamentary
polls held on Tuesday, which were aimed at restoring stability
after the civil war that ended two years ago.

First results from 39 out of a total of 3,070 polling
stations showed Johnson-Sirleaf, a 66-year-old grandmother and
Harvard-trained economist, and 39-year-old Weah, a former AC
Milan striker, leading the field of 22 presidential candidates.

"The two front-runners in the presidential race from these
results are Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf with 24.6 percent from George
Weah at 21.2 percent," National Elections Commission chief
Frances Johnson-Morris told a news conference.

She stressed these were early and partial results and
called for patience, saying the final national results would
take between three and seven days.

If Johnson-Sirleaf wins, she would become Africa's first
elected female president.

As U.N. helicopters and jeeps collected ballot boxes from
across Liberia, groups of excited residents clustered around
radio sets in Monrovia's shops and coffee houses to hear
reports of early voting tallies.

"It's like a see-saw. Some places it's Ellen, some places
it's Weah, but in Monrovia George seems to be in the driving
seat," said Martin Kromah, 33, a cellphone repairman.

The first partial official results put two other
candidates, Charles Brumskine and Winston Tubman, tied in third
place with 10.2 percent each.

Soccer millionaire Weah's well-funded election campaign had
drawn huge crowds, especially in the capital Monrovia, where he
grew up and was expected to do well.

However, the absence of reliable opinion polls made the
final outcome difficult to predict.


Liberians hope the outcome of the polls will cement future
stability and leave behind the 14-year civil war that caused a
quarter of a million deaths, uprooted almost a third of the
population and left the country's infrastructure in ruins.

Some question whether Weah has the qualifications and
political experience to be president. His supporters retort
that Harvard-trained professionals such as Johnson-Sirleaf have
done little to help ordinary Liberians in the past two decades.

Both have said they would work together whoever wins and
have pledged to make reconstruction their priority, such as
restoring running water and mains electricity.

Among the 22 presidential candidates is one representing
the National Patriotic Party of exiled former President Charles
Taylor, who triggered the civil war in 1989 and is seen as the
mastermind of several West African conflicts.

Taylor went into exile in Nigeria to end Liberia's conflict
but he is wanted by a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone for war
crimes. The court prosecutor said last week he had convincing
evidence Taylor was supporting candidates for Tuesday's polls.

Paul Risley, spokesman for the 15,000-strong U.N.
peacekeeping mission in Liberia, said four U.N. helicopters and
more than 350 U.N. trucks and jeeps were helping to transport
tally sheets and ballot boxes from remote voting centers.

Besides the presidential candidates, 718 candidates are
standing for the 30-seat Senate and 64 seats in the House of

The presidential and vice-presidential candidates need 50
percent of the votes plus one vote to win, otherwise a run-off
will be held between the two leading candidates no more than
two weeks after results of the first round are announced.