Liberia counts votes in presidential runoff as many hope for change

Liberia counts votes in presidential runoff as many hope for change
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By Alphonso Toweh and Carielle Doe

MONROVIA (Reuters) -Ballot counting was underway in Liberia on Tuesday in a run-off election between President George Weah and former vice president Joseph Boakai, in what is expected to be a closely fought vote.

Former soccer star Weah, 57, who came to power in 2018 after beating Boakai, won just 7,000 more votes than career politician Boakai in the October poll. Weah failed to reach the 50% needed to secure an outright victory in October.

Turnout appeared lighter on Tuesday in Monrovia, the capital, compared with the first round of voting, a Reuters reporter said. Several polls closed on time without people still queuing to cast ballots, which was a common sight in October.

"I voted because I want to see my children come out well," said Oretha Jallah, a mother of two selling oranges on the side of a road.

Vote counting began just after 1800 GMT at polling stations across the capital. The electoral commission will begin releasing provisional results on Wednesday.

Many voters said they were underwhelmed by Weah's first term, which has been dogged by graft scandals and persistent poverty in Africa's oldest independent republic.

"I am hoping for things to improve," said Hannan Kollie, who studies sociology at the University of Liberia. "Even if George Weah is re-elected, he should do more to improve health, education and environment," she said.

Weah has asked voters for more time to make good on his first-term promises to root out corruption and improve livelihoods. The West African nation is still suffering the fallout from two civil wars between 1989 and 2003, and the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic that killed thousands.

Boakai, 78, who lost to Weah in the 2017 election, has campaigned on the need to rescue the nation from what he calls mismanagement by Weah's administration.

The first round of the election saw a record turnout of 79% of around 2.4 million registered voters.

Boakai said on Tuesday that it was normal for the runoff to have a lower turnout, but said Weah's party was "panicking" and trying to stop ballots being cast, without providing details.

"We are very vigilant. We have people checking on all those things," he told reporters.

"A BETTER COUNTRY"

Both Weah and Boakai have received endorsements from candidates who lost in the first round. One significant unknown is the voting preference of the 6% of people whose ballots were invalidated in the first round.

Although generally peaceful, the electoral period saw clashes between rival factions in which two people were killed. Logistical problems caused delays to voting in some rural areas.

No major incidents were reported on Tuesday, with calm and order prevailing at various voting centres, said a team of observers from the Economic Community of West African States.

The electoral commission flagged rumours about pre-marked ballots on social media and said it was "fake news" to discourage voters.

"I am happy that the place is calm, everybody is voting, there is no tension. This is democracy," Weah told reporters after casting his ballot in the capital. "I am confident of winning."

The vote is in many ways a test of Weah's popularity. He has cult-like support in many areas, inspired by his rise from a Monrovia slum to international soccer stardom, but he has been unable to ease widespread poverty or stamp out corruption.

The economy grew 4.8% in 2022, driven by gold production and a relatively good harvest, but more than 80% of the population still face moderate or severe food insecurity, the World Bank said in July.

Last year, Weah fired his chief of staff and two other senior officials after the United States sanctioned them for graft.

Many hope for change.

"I want to see a better country," said taxi driver Patrick Tokpah after casting his ballot.

"More companies, more jobs, good education. Food production. The rule of law to be enforced."

(Writing by Alessandra Prentice, Anait Miridzhanian, Edward McAllister and Sofia Christensen; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Bernadette Baum, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Leslie Adler)