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Liberia poll sets up “King George” vs “Iron Lady”

October 14, 2005

By Katharine Houreld

MONROVIA (Reuters) – Liberia’s presidential election race
advanced on Friday toward a second round contest between a
charismatic soccer star supporters call “King George” and a
Harvard-trained technocrat dubbed the “Iron Lady.”

Three days after the first polls since a civil war, neither
early frontrunner, former AC Milan striker George Weah, nor his
closest rival, former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf,
seemed likely to gain an outright first round win.

Although only a third of the votes have been counted,
electoral officials anticipate a second round run-off, probably
next early month, will be needed to decide the presidency.
Foreign election observers, including former U.S. President
Jimmy Carter, have made similar predictions.

“We are looking at a second round. Every indication is that
it is inevitable,” a representative for Johnson-Sirleaf’s
campaign, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Millionaire Weah, 39, and Johnson-Sirleaf, a 66-year-old
who is bidding to become Africa’s first elected female
president, emerged as early leaders from a field of 22
candidates including former warlords and wealthy lawyers.

A run-off would give Liberian voters a choice between a
national sports hero, who is a political novice, and a veteran
politician, who has an impressive international resume.

With first round votes counted from 974 of the 3,070
polling stations, Weah led with 26.6 percent, while
Johnson-Sirleaf followed with 16.7 percent. Two other
candidates were running almost neck and neck for third with
just over 11 percent each.

Presidential candidates need 50 percent plus one vote to
win, otherwise a second round will be held no more than two
weeks after final results are announced.

Liberian voters have been on tenterhooks since Tuesday’s
presidential and parliamentary polls intended to restore
stability to the West African state two years after the end of
a brutal civil war that killed a quarter of a million people.

OPINIONS DIVIDED

The prospect of a run-off touched off lively debates on the
streets of Monrovia between supporters of Weah, who were hoping
for a first round win, and backers of Johnson-Sirleaf, who
believe she will gain momentum in a second round.

Analysts said supporters of candidates who ran against Weah
in the first round could swing behind his rival in a run-off.

Opponents question whether Weah, who went from a childhood
in a Monrovia slum to winning the World Player of the Year
award in 1995, has the qualifications or experience to be
president.

“He is not educated … illiterate people follow him
because he is a star. But we say we need someone the
international community will trust,” said Eric Catakaw, a
25-year-old unemployed economics graduate.

But for many poor Liberians, the rags-to-riches career of
the man they call “King George” embodies a passage to
prosperity many would like to see for their country and
themselves.

“I don’t think a second round is appropriate for the
Liberian people. … Many illiterate people will not have time
to go back and vote again. Resources should be spent on the
reconstruction of Liberia,” said Zramah Zergler, a 31-year-old
missionary worker who supports Weah.

Johnson-Sirleaf, whose tough political style has earned her
the nickname “Iron Lady,” has previous experience working in
government and with the United Nations, World Bank and
Citibank.

Weah says he is untainted by links with former warlords or
with former President Charles Taylor, who triggered the start
of the civil war in 1989. Taylor, who is in exile in Nigeria,
is wanted for war crimes by a U.N.-backed court in Sierra
Leone.

Johnson-Sirleaf once supported Taylor but has since broken
ties with him and supports his prosecution.

(Additional reporting by Nick Tattersall)




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