Former international footballer George Weah and Vice-President Joseph Boakai joined voters in casting their ballots in Liberia on Tuesday as they went head-to-head in a delayed run-off vote for the presidency.
Voters are choosing a successor to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is stepping down after 12 years as Africa’s first elected female head of state, in the West African country’s first democratic transition since 1944.
The ballot was delayed for seven weeks due to legal challenges lodged by Boakai’s Unity Party against the electoral commission over the conduct of the first round of voting.
Weah starred in top-flight European football teams Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan in the 1990s before playing briefly for Chelsea and Manchester City in England later in his career.
He and Boakai voted in polling stations near their homes in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, the capital of this nation of 4.6 million people.
Both declared victory was theirs for the taking.
“We’re going to win because the people believe in us and they know we represent the best,” said Boakai, a public servant of four decades standing, seen as the establishment candidate.
But Weah was resolute that his second run for the presidency would be successful.
“The victory is certain, I am sure that I am going to win,” he told journalists after casting his ballot.
– Previous fraud claims –
Weah alleges that electoral fraud cost him the presidency in 2005 and the vice-presidency in 2011.
His CDC party contested those results, but has refrained so far this time.
After voting on Tuesday, Weah warned that “what happened in 2005 and 2011 cannot be repeated”.
Boakai also sounded a cautionary note, saying he would accept the result provided the National Elections Commission met “all of the standards”.
Boakai waged a bitter legal battle over problems with queue control and voter identification in the October 10 first round.
On Tuesday polling stations displayed voter lists as a mark of transparency.
“This time everything is OK. It was very easy for me to find my voting place,” said Gabriel Peters as he cast his vote at Calvary Chapel Mission School in Monrovia, which he said had opened on time.
There were fears however that holding an election the day after Christmas could hit turnout.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 am (0800 GMT) for the country’s 2.1 million voters, and were expected to close at 1800 GMT.
Results are expected in the next few days, according to the electoral commission.
– From pitch to palace? –
Weah topped the first round of voting with 38.4 percent while Boakai came second with 28.8 percent. That triggered a run-off as neither made it past the 50 percent needed to win outright.
Whoever wins on Tuesday 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 being vague on their policies, 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 between 18 and 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. He was also pictured at a public event with Sirleaf on Thursday, heightening speculation that a feud with Boakai has pushed her to support his opponent.
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.
The US embassy had warned its citizens of possible violence and criminality during the electoral period, but voting was peaceful by all accounts on Tuesday.
– Living standards debate –
Vice President Boakai meanwhile is seen as a continuity candidate and has won praise for his public service and his image as a corruption-free family man.
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.