Wed, Nov 09, 2005 - Page 6 News List

Liberians return to polls for runoff vote

PRESIDENTIAL CHOICE Soccer star George Weah is popular but has no administrative background, while his rival is a Harvard-trained World Bank economist

AGENCIES , MONROVIA

A Liberian man listening to his radio waits in line outside a polling station at dawn to vote in the capital Monrovia yesterday. The run-off polls pit the former soccer star George Weah against a Harvard-trained economist, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who is known as the ``Iron Lady.''

PHOTO: EPA

Liberians went to the polls yesterday in a presidential runoff between millionaire soccer star George Weah and a former finance minister known as the "Iron Lady,"hoping to turn the page on a savage 14-year civil war.

Among the mud-soaked shanties and crumbling, bullet-pocked buildings of the West African country's capital Monrovia, polling booths stand in churches and schools for Liberians to cast their votes with a finger print.

In the jungles outside the capital, huts and tents suffice, some of them four days walk from the nearest road.

Results are expected to take up to two weeks to trickle in from across the war-ravaged country, with more than 1.3 million voters registered in 3,070 polling stations.

Former AC Milan striker Weah won the Oct. 11 first round with 28 percent as a massive turnout swamped polling stations.

Weah, has little formal education or experience in politics, but his pledges to smash corruption and restore basic services such as running water are wildly popular with the poor of Monrovia's slums where he grew up and is idolized.

Harvard-trained former World Bank economist and 66-year-old grandmother Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf came second with 20 percent, and could become Africa's first elected female president. But she is handicapped by her association with past failed governments.

"It's going to be a tough battle," said Liberian journalist Raymond Zarbay. "Whoever wins will have to take Liberia from where it is. Can either one do it? That's the million dollar question."

"I'm gonna vote for George Weah. He never took part in the war and he love his country," said Junior Paye, 19, a former child soldier in the army of ex-president Charles Taylor, who is now exiled in Nigeria after a 2003 peace accord.

"George will do something good for us so we can leave the street and go to school," he said.

Weah, who owns one of Liberia's main TV and radio stations, has attracted support from prominent former warlords such as rebel leader Sekou Conneh, and his supporters claim he alone has the broad support to unify Africa's oldest republic.

While Weah's supporters say he is untainted by politicians responsibility for the war that killed 250,000 Liberians, opponents say the former FIFA world player of the year lacks the education and experience necessary to run a country.

"George Weah is a fine man, but he has an area of specialization: football," said Augustin Koso, 30, debating politics with a group of fellow students under the shade of a tree at the University of Liberia.

"Ellen is the only doctor that can rescue Liberia now from dying," he said, holding a copy of the Analyst newspaper headlined "Qualification Vs Popularity."

Liberia enjoyed years of prosperity until resentment with the ruling elite bubbled over into years of sporadic warfare, sending drug-crazed child soldiers spilling into Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Some 230 international and 4,000 Liberian observers are monitoring the voting process, while UN military helicopters are patrolling the skies.

Lines began forming outside polling stations just before voting began as scheduled at 8am.

About 50 people waited outside a school in the capital early yesterday. The six polling workers there prayed together in a circle just before the voters began filing into a bare, concrete room.

Augustin Forkpa, the first in line, made the sign of the cross against his chest before dropping his ballot into a clear plastic container.

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