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Liberians vote in historic, delayed election

A woman casts her ballot during the presidential election at a polling station in Monrovia, Liberia, December 26, 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

(reuters_tickers)

By James Giahyue and Alphonso Toweh

MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberians went to the polls on Tuesday for a presidential election they hope will mark their first democratic transfer of power in more than seven decades, despite allegations of fraud.

Former world footballer of the year George Weah is squaring up against vice president Joseph Boakai, both of them promising to tackle poverty and corruption in a country where most citizens have no reliable electricity or clean drinking water.

They are bidding to succeed Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in a run-off vote delayed for more than a month after Boakai and another candidate alleged widespread fraud in October's first-round vote, a challenge that the Supreme Court rejected this month.

There were no reports of violence as voting proceeded under sunny skies in the capital Monrovia. Election agents told Reuters first indications pointed to a lower turnout than in the first round.

"It is great day for Liberia - a test day for democracy," said Boakai after casting his vote in Paynesville. "We will accept the results provided they meet all the standards."

Officials said results were expected in the next few days, declining to give a specific date.

Johnson Sirleaf's 12-year rule cemented peace in the West African country after civil war ended in 2003, and brought in much needed aid.

But critics, including much of the country's youth, say her administration was marred by corruption and that she did little to raise most Liberians out of dire poverty.

Liberia was also racked by the Ebola crisis, which killed thousands between 2014 and 2016, while a drop in iron ore prices since 2014 has dented export revenues.

Weah, world footballer of the year in 1995, won with 38 percent in the first round versus Boakai's 29 percent.

"I voted George Weah because I believe that he will do better for me and my country. I want change," said Miama Kamara, a 32-year-old businesswoman, after casting her ballot in the capital.

"MARKED IMPROVEMENTS"

Observers from the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute said polling stations were better organised than in the first round.

The National Elections Commission said there were isolated incidents of voting irregularities, including one woman caught trying to vote twice, but no sign of widespread graft.

"So far the election process has been smooth and there are marked improvements on the Oct. 10 poll," NEC said.

Boakai has found it harder to convince voters that he will bring change, given that he worked alongside Johnson Sirleaf for 12 years. Weah, by contrast, has won the hearts of mostly young Liberians through his star performances for Europe's biggest football teams in the 1990s.

His arrival at a polling station in Paynesville was met with cheers by a crowd of supporters.

"My focus now is to win," he told reporters. "From there, I am going to get on the drawing board with my team and then we'll put a plan together to move our country forward."

Some however are wary of Weah's lack of political experience, education and concrete policy.

"Boakai understands diplomacy," said McArthur Nuah Kermah, a school registrar in Paynesville. "Weah is not experienced and doesn't know the workings of government."

Turnout appeared low on the day after the Christmas holiday, in contrast to the high turnout for the first round, although official figures are yet to be released.

NEC did its best to rally young voters and conjure a sense of occasion in a morning Twitter post.

"First-time voters MUST vote on December 26 Run-Off elections," its tweet said. "This is the first big process you are a part of ... you must complete it in order to be a part of tomorrow's glorious and democratic Liberia!"

(Writing by Edward McAllister; Editing by John Stonestreet and Andrew Heavens)

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