Ex-football star Weah headed for presidential run-off in Liberia

A supporters of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) party and its presidential candidate George Weah during an official closing campaign rally at a local soccer stadium, ahead of presidential and general elections in Monrovia, Liberia, 6 October 2017. [Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA/EFE]

Former football star George Weah was set to win the first round of a presidential election in Liberia after the elections commission said on Sunday he was leading with 39% of votes and less than 5% of precincts still to be counted.

He will face Vice-President Joseph Boakai, who was in second place with 29.1%, in a second round poll next month.

Boakai was more than 280,000 votes ahead of the third placed candidate, lawyer Charles Brumskine, on 9.8%.

The final certified results from Tuesday’s poll must be announced by 25 October. But with more than 1.5 million votes counted so far and 95.6% of polling stations having reported, it was mathematically impossible that Brumskine could move into second place.

Turnout based on votes counted so far was nearly 75%.

A total of 20 candidates competed in last week’s poll seeking to succeed Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in what would be Liberia’s first democratic transfer of power in more than 70 years.

Weah and Boakai had both predicted outright victory in the first round.

Liberia has been prey to civil wars from the 1980s that killed approximately 250,000 people and devastated its economy. Since the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2006 as president, the country has greatly improved and statehood was re-introduced.

Sirleaf is the first female head of state in Africa and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. The Commission calls Liberia a champion of its kind – a country ‘returning from far’, where the situation has improved a lot despite a state of affairs which was seen as desperate only recently.

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Supporters at Weah’s headquarters in the capital Monrovia crowded around cars listening to the results broadcast on the radio and voiced frustration as it became clear that a second round of voting was unavoidable.

“We need to be calm. But we are worried that they are going to cheat us. We feel disenchanted from 2005 and 2011. People say ‘no second round’ because of the desire they have,” Weah supporter Luke Harris, 31, said.

Weah, a national hero in Liberia, became the first non-European to win Europe’s football player of the year award in 1995, the same year he picked up the African and world player of the year awards.

His career was defined by a hugely successful stint at Italian club AC Milan, where he helped the footballing giant win two Serie A titles.

He finished runner-up to Johnson Sirleaf in a 2005 election that helped draw a line under years of civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. He was the vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Winston Tubman, who lost to her six years later.

Officials from both Weah and Boakai’s campaigns said they would accept the result.

“We are disappointed that there is going to be a run off. We had anticipated that we would win in the first round. But we will accept it and go with it,” said Mohammed Ali, spokesman for Boakai’s ruling Unity Party.

Even before Sunday’s results announcement, both campaigns had already begun courting other candidates, seeking their support in the run-off.

Ali confirmed that Boakai’s campaign had met with fourth placed candidate Alexander Cummings and ex-warlord-turned-senator Prince Johnson, who was in fifth place.

Johnson said he had also been contacted by Weah.

Brumskine has denounced the vote, claiming it was plagued by fraud and called for a new election though international observers gave the poll a clean bill of health.

The vote will be re-run in two polling places in Nimba County on Tuesday, however, due to irregularities, although that measure only concerns a few thousand votes.