Liberia’s Sirleaf leads halfway vote tally

Liberia’s Nobel winner and incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took a strong lead over rival Winston Tubman on Friday, without the majority needed to avoid a run-off presidential election.

With more than half of polling stations tallied after Tuesday’s elections, Sirleaf mustered 45.4% of the vote, while former diplomat Tubman came in with 29.5%, poll chief James Fromayan said at a press conference.

With a run-off election looming, ex-warlord Prince Johnson looked poised to become a suprise kingmaker, in third place with 11.4%.

“He is a key player, he holds the balls right now to say whether [Sirleaf’s] Unity Party gets in the chair, or whether the CDC [Tubman’s Congress for Democratic Change] will be able to unseat the Unity Party,” political analyst Alvin J Wright told Agence France-Presse on Friday.

Johnson, who ordered his soldiers to hack off the ears of dictator Samuel Doe while sipping a Budweiser in 1990 — in a video still available on YouTube — says he has yet to decide who to back in a second round of voting.

“I will decide whom to support, I don’t want to jump the gun, that’s my trump card,” Johnson, an elected senator, told AFP in an interview.

Voter turnout stood at 70.2% with 585 179 valid votes counted. The elections commission reported a high number of 44 096 invalid votes.

The election, seen as key to cementing the country’s fragile eight-year peace after two back-to-back civil wars, has been lauded as peaceful by the United Nations and African observers.

Tubman, who is hoping to win with a powerful mix of his Harvard education and football star running mate George Weah, has complained about ballot stuffing, but Fromayan said no official complaint had been filed.

Observers from the Carter Center urged parties not to make any statements concerning the results until the process was complete.

The electoral commission has until October 26 to announce the final results.

Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace prize just days before Tuesday’s vote, for her work in rebuilding the country and promoting women’s rights after the civil war in which some 250 000 people were killed.

While initially promising to serve only one term, the 72-year-old grandmother has asked for more time to continue building the “broken country”.

Sirleaf has become a darling of the international community, charming creditors to write off billions of dollars in debt, and attracting investors in iron-ore and oil exploration in a bid to kickstart the nation’s shattered economy.

However unemployment rates of about 80% and extreme poverty mean the lives of many have not changed in the west African nation.

Rival Tubman criticised the timing of the prestigious Nobel award and said Sirleaf does not deserve it as she had failed to reconcile a nation anguished after the war fought by numerous rebel factions, some using drugged-up child soldiers and maiming, raping and terrorising citizens.

Sirleaf has been criticised for dragging her feet in implementing recommendations by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which names her on a list of people who should be barred from public office for backing ex-warlord turned president Charles Taylor.

Taylor is awaiting judgement by the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but has never been prosecuted for atrocities committed in his own country.

The 8 000-strong UN mission in Liberia is providing security back-up as the country prepares for the announcement of results, often the most potentially dangerous moment in African elections. — AFP

Fran Blandy
Fran Blandy
AFP's deputy bureau chief for East Africa, based in Nairobi, Previously correspondent in Paris, Dakar and Johannesburg.
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