Vote counting was under way in Liberia on Wednesday following a peaceful run-off election for a new president, pitting former international footballer George Weah against Vice-President Joseph Boakai.
Voters were choosing a successor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is stepping down after 12 years as Africa’s first elected female head of state.
Results of Tuesday’s vote are expected in a few days, in what would be the West African country’s first democratic transition since 1944, according to electoral officials.
The ballot was delayed for seven weeks due to legal challenges lodged by Boakai’s Unity Party against the electoral commission over the conduct of the first round of voting, but many of the complaints appeared to have been addressed in the second round.
The Liberia Elections Observation Network, which had more than 1,000 observers stationed across the country, hailed a vote it said had passed calmly with better organisation than the first poll on October 10, as did observers from the European Union.
Former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who served as an electoral observer for the US-based National Democratic Institute (NDI), said a successful resolution to the process was of particular importance within the international community.
“This transition is critical and if we succeed, if Liberia succeeds, West Africa succeeded and Africa succeeded,” he said.
“There has been no major incident to report of a technical nature and the voting was peaceful,” noted electoral commission chief Francis Korkoya.
But with the vote held the day after Christmas, some national and international observers warned that turnout may have been affected.
As Liberia’s most famous son, Weah attracts huge crowds and has a faithful youth following in a country where a fifth of the electorate is aged between 18 and 22. But he has been criticised for his performance in the Senate, where he has served since 2014.
Weah, 51, starred in top-flight European football teams Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s before playing briefly for Chelsea and Manchester City later in his career.
His rival, Boakai, 73, is seen as a continuity candidate and has won praise for his years of public service and image as a corruption-free family man, while fending off allegations he failed to tackle poverty while in government.
– From pitch to palace? –
Weah topped the first round of voting with 38.4 percent while Boakai came second with 28.8 percent. That triggered a run-off as neither made it past the 50 percent needed to win outright.
“I voted for George Weah because he is the one who will bring the change we have been waiting for in this country,” declared supporter John Momoh after casting his ballot on Tuesday.
Victoria Blamoh, 56, told AFP she voted for Boakai’s “experience of leadership”, explaining: “He has been in government for 12 years, so he knows the ins and outs of it.”
Whoever wins the election faces an economy battered by lower commodity prices for its main exports of rubber and iron ore, and a rapidly depreciating currency.
Sirleaf guided the nation out of ruin following back-to-back 1989-2003 civil wars and through the horrors of the 2014-16 Ebola crisis, but is accused of failing to combat poverty and tackle corruption.
Living standards in Liberia remain among the worst in the world.
Weah has polled well in Bong county, the fiefdom of Liberian warlord and former president Charles Taylor and his ex-wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor, who is the former footballer’s vice-presidential pick, attracting controversy to his campaign.
Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but his presence has loomed large over the election.
– Previous fraud claims –
As counting got under way, the candidates were urged to keep supporters calm to avoid the electoral violence that has hit Liberia in previous years.
Boakai has waged a bitter legal battle over problems with queue control and voter identification in the October 10 first round, and said he would accept the result provided the National Elections Commission (NEC) met “all of the standards”.
Polling stations on Tuesday displayed voter lists as a mark of transparency. The EU’s chief observer, Maria Arena, said staff were “better trained” for the run-off.
Weah alleges that electoral fraud cost him the presidency in 2005 and the vice-presidency in 2011.
His CDC party contested those results but has refrained so far this time, though after voting on Tuesday Weah warned that “what happened in 2005 and 2011 cannot be repeated”.