A man walks past a billboard as the nation prepares to vote in upcoming national elections on December 25, 2017 in Monrovia. Liberians choose a new leader December 26, in a run-off between Vice President Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party and footballing icon George Weah of the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), a vote that will mark the country’s first democratic transition since 1944. / AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU
Liberians began voting on Tuesday to select either former international footballer George Weah or Vice President Joseph Boakai as their new president, in a vote that analysts say is too close to call.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) for the West African nation’s 2.1 million voters, and are expected to close at 6:00 pm (1800 GMT).
They will choose a successor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is stepping down after serving 12 years as Africa’s first elected female leader.
The vote comes after seven weeks of delays caused by legal challenges against the electoral commission lodged by Boakai’s party. Results are expected in the next few days, according to the electoral commission.
Reports from early voters suggested that problems with queue control and voting ID encountered in the October 10 first round and the subject of a bitter legal battle waged by Boakai had been addressed for the run-off.
“This time everything is OK. It was very easy for me to find my voting place. Already at the entrance someone is there to direct you,” said Gabriel Peters as he cast his vote at Calvary Chapel Mission School in Monrovia, which he said had opened on time.
Malcolm Joseph, a local observer and the executive director of the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building, told AFP the country had “resolved to move ahead” with what he expected to be “a very peaceful process”.
From pitch to palace?
In the first round of voting on October 10, Weah topped the poll with 38.4 percent while Boakai came second with 28.8 percent, triggering a run-off as neither made it past the 50 percent needed to win outright.
Boakai then accused the NEC of fraud and incompetence grave enough to have affected the vote, delaying proceedings while the complaints were analysed by the Supreme Court. His party’s arguments were ultimately rejected.
Whoever wins the delayed vote faces an economy battered by lower commodity prices for its main exports of rubber and iron ore, and a rapidly depreciating currency.
Both candidates have been accused of offering vague platforms, beyond assurances on free education and investment in infrastructure and agriculture.
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 18 to 22, but he is criticised for his long absences from the Senate, where he has served since 2014.
Weah’s endorsement by warlord-turned-preacher Prince Johnson, who is extremely popular in the populous county of Nimba, may boost his chances, while he was pictured at a public event with Sirleaf on Thursday, heightening speculation a feud with Boakai has pushed her to support his opponent.
“You know I’ve been in competitions –- tough ones too and I came out victorious. So I know Boakai cannot defeat me,” Weah told AFP on Saturday. “I have the people on my side.”
Weah has also 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.
Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, but his presence has loomed over the election.
‘We cannot feast’
Vice President Boakai meanwhile is seen as a continuity candidate and has won praise for his public service stretching back four decades, when many elites fled Liberia for the United States.
Boakai said Sunday he was “very, very confident” of winning, telling AFP: “Victory is mine”.
While ordinary Liberians are grateful peace has held through Sirleaf’s two terms in office, living standards remain dire for most.
She 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.
Both issues have been a focus of the campaign, giving Boakai a difficult path to tread after serving at her side.