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George Weah, former soccer player and presidential candidate of Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), arrives at his party's headquarters in Monrovia, Liberia December 27, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon


By Alphonso Toweh and James Giahyue

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Former soccer star George Weah's camp said on Wednesday he was set to win Liberia's presidential election run-off against Vice President Joseph Boakai but Boakai's camp said the contest was still too close to call ahead of the first official results.

Liberians voted on Tuesday in a run-off for a successor to outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, meant to usher in the first democratic transfer of power in more than seven decades.

Liberian election officials began collating the votes from Liberia's 15 counties on Wednesday and planned to announce preliminary results in the afternoon, with final results due on Thursday.

Unofficial partial results announced on local radio stations all showed Weah in the lead. Weah, the only African ever to be named FIFA World Player of the Year, lost to Johnson Sirleaf in a 2005 election as a political novice. He has served in Liberia's senate since 2015.

A senior Weah adviser, Morluba Morlu, told Reuters he expected Weah to win with about 70 percent of the vote based on precinct-level vote tallies he said were trickling in from across the country after Tuesday's vote.

"It is clear. We are only waiting for the (election commission) to announce the results and declare him president," Morlu said. "We are calling on ... Boakai to concede defeat and congratulate George Weah."

Boakai spokesman Robert Kpadeh, however, predicted a close race.

"The numbers give us a good feeling," he told Reuters. "From now to tomorrow morning, we should have bigger numbers from our strongholds. We are still optimistic that the numbers can favour us."

Liberia, Africa's oldest modern republic, was founded by freed U.S. slaves in 1847, but its last democratic transfer of power occurred in 1944. After a violent military coup in 1980 it experienced instability and civil war that ended only in 2003.

In a statement, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the "orderly poll" and its peaceful conduct.

Johnson Sirleaf's 12-year rule cemented peace and won her the Nobel Peace Prize, but many Liberians have criticised her for not doing enough to root out endemic poverty and corruption and are eager for fresh leadership.

Weah has positioned himself an outsider who will deliver tangible benefits to the country's young population.

Turnout on Tuesday appeared much lower than the first round in October but people in the capital Monrovia expressed relief that the vote had gone smoothly, after several candidates said the first round was marred by fraud.

The Supreme Court ultimately dismissed a legal challenge brought by the third-place finisher and backed by Boakai. The proceedings delayed the second round by more than a month.

"It's free and fair and transparent," said Kamhdiggs Kemah, 48, of Tuesday's vote. "We saw the whole process, so I am very happy with it. And I know my next leader will be George Weah."

(Additional reporting by Sanni Kazeem Seun; Writing by Aaron Ross; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Graff)

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