Liberians choose their leader

Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf appeared poised on Friday to become Africa’s first democratically elected female president, claiming victory after results from most of the West African country gave her an apparently unbeatable lead.

With almost 91% of ballots counted, the electoral commission said 67-year-old Johnson-Sirleaf held about 59% of Tuesday’s vote, compared with 41% for international soccer star George Weah, who rejects the poll as fraudulent.

“I think the results are clear,” Johnson-Sirleaf told The Associated Press at her residence late on Thursday.

“It’s clear that the Liberian people have expressed confidence in me. They have elected me to lead the team that will bring reform to the country and that will deliver development.”

For Johnson-Sirleaf to become President, the National Elections Commission must complete ballot counting and officially certify the results, a process that could take days.

Weah, watching a soccer match on satellite television at his Monrovia villa just before midnight on Thursday, slammed the poll as unfair and did not concede victory.

“She brought in fraud, she brought extra ballots and stuffed them in the boxes,” Weah said of Johnson-Sirleaf and her supporters.

“Somebody must be disqualified instead of claiming to be the president… this is not about who wins or who loses. This about democracy.”

International observers who monitored the poll said preliminary findings indicated it was fair.

All night and early on Friday, groups of excited Liberians clustered on crumbling street corners in the bombed-out capital, swigging beers and discussing the vote.
Some argued, shaking fingers and shouting.

“We’re going to do it right from day one,” Johnson-Sirleaf, a widowed grandmother, said in her trademark reading glasses.

“We’re going to have a government of inclusion. We’re going to reach out to the people.”

She also said she would offer Weah a post in government—perhaps the Ministry of Youth and Sports.

“We hope that Mr Weah will get over his disappointment that has led to his rejecting the results, and that ultimately he’ll accept it and we’ll find a way forward together.”

National Elections Commission chairperson Frances Johnson-Morris said with 90,8% of votes tallied, 59,1% was held by Johnson-Sirleaf versus 40,9% for Weah.

Johnson-Morris said the commission had received a fraud complaint from Weah’s campaign and would investigate, but she gave no details.

Weah first accused poll workers of having plans to stuff ballot boxes in Johnson-Sirleaf’s favour on Wednesday. Johnson-Sirleaf denied the charge. Weah has also accused the National Elections Commission of bias.

Earlier on Thursday, Weah met with Alan Doss, head of the 15 000-strong peacekeeping mission that has been deployed in Liberia since civil war ended in 2003.

“We are seeking the advice of the international community and all the people that are involved to see if everybody can arrest this situation,” Weah said. “While we are preparing ourselves for the legal side, we are also asking our people to be very calm.”

Weah’s supporters include former warlords, rebel leaders and fighters.

Doss said the allegations of fraud were being taken seriously.

“We don’t want allegations of fraud to mar the election,” Doss said.

“So these allegations, these claims, have to be taken seriously and looked into and followed up immediately.”

The vote was Liberia’s first since civil war ended in 2003 and a transitional, caretaker government led by Gyude Bryant was set up.

Max van den Berg, head of a 50-member European Union observer mission, said the vote “has been well administered in a peaceful, transparent and orderly manner.”

David Carroll, leading a 28-person team from the Atlanta, Georgia-based Carter Centre, said that while “minor irregularities” had been noted, “none of our observers saw any serious problems”.

Observers from the Economic Community of West African States, also deemed the vote fair.

Many of Johnson-Sirleaf’s supporters have portrayed the vote as brains-versus-brawn face-off. While Weah never graduated from high-school, Johnson-Sirleaf has a masters degree in public administration from Harvard University, and has held top regional jobs at the World Bank, the United Nations and within government.

In elections in 1997, Johnson-Sirleaf ran second to warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, who was forced out of power two years ago.

Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf finished first and second respectively in the October 11 first round.

Weah’s ascent from Monrovia’s slums to international soccer stardom had earned great appeal in a dirt-poor country short on heroes. He has no experience in government, but that is seen as a plus by many in a country long-ruled by coup leaders and warlords. - Sapa-AP

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