Sirleaf leads Liberian presidential vote, but a second round looms

Nobel Peace Prizewinner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has 44.5 percent of the Liberian presidential vote so far: not enough to avoid a second round, where former warlord Prince Johnson may be 'kingmaker.'

Luc Gnago/Reuters
Riot policemen stand guard in front of the National Elections Commission building during presidential elections in Monrovia, on Thursday. Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has won 44.5 percent of votes counted so far in the West African country's election, not enough to avoid a second round.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf posted a major lead ahead of the opposition in preliminary election results released yesterday, but analysts say that it will not be enough for the Nobel Peace Prizewinning incumbent to deliver on her promise of a first-round victory.

Armored riot police guarded the National Electoral Commission (NEC) headquarters in Monrovia yesterday afternoon as NEC chairman James Fromayan announced the preliminary results. But the streets remained calm even as results failed to point to a clear victory by either the ruling Unity Party or the major opposition party the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), led by the Harvard-educated former Justice Minister Winston Tubman and soccer legend George Weah, who ran against Ms. Sirleaf in the 2005 elections.

Sirleaf and her running mate, the current vice president Joseph Nyema Boakai, took 44.5 percent of the vote and an 18 percent lead over Mr. Tubman and Mr. Weah. Former warlord and current Sen. Prince Johnson – best known around the globe for the key role he played Liberia’s first civil war, including capturing and killing former President Samuel Doe, and his battles with Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) – took 13.5 percent of the vote.

A warlord as 'kingmaker'?

Mr. Johnson has widely been quoted by media outlets saying he will be “the kingmaker” and has said he will support the CDC if either party was unable to take 51 percent of the vote and the elections were driven to a second round. Some analysts say it remains unclear as to whom Johnson will back. However there is a chance Johnson, who remains popular in his home county of Nimba, where he was elected as a senator in 2005, could determine who takes the presidency.

“He is a difficult man and he is erratic and unpredictable,” said Dan Saryee, executive director of the Liberia Democratic Institute. “Even though he pronounced that he supported CDC, because of his erratic nature I wouldn’t rely on that.”

However, Saryee says that Johnson is holding enough of the vote at the moment to pose a threat to the Unity Party’s chances at reelection. “If he [Johnson] still takes the same line and supports the CDC, it means that the Unity Party will have to do a lot of work. He does have a lot of the vote given the provisional results we have.”

While there has been a great deal of commentary on whether there will be a runoff, fewer than 200,000 of the 1.7 million votes have been tallied and only 2.5 percent of votes counted in the key county of Montserrado, in which the capital and around 35 percent of the voting population are located. Thus, the implications of the results still remain unclear. The NEC will be releasing additional preliminary results today and final results on Oct. 26 that will determine whether there will be a run off, with one party needing to take 51 percent of the vote in order to claim victory.

Uncertainty on the street

For Liberian citizens and supporters of both parties, the results tell little about who their new president will be.

Alieu Swaray, a cellphone scratch-card vendor who voted for the Unity Party, said that he thinks a runoff is likely, but that Sirleaf will be victorious. Sitting behind a wooden stand with a sign pasted on it reading "No violence before, during and after the elections," Mr. Swaray said he was certain that the UP would be able to muster up the support of other marginal parties.

“When we go for the second round, most of the other parties will join us,” Swaray said, confidently adding that the UP would gain Johnson’s support also.

Milikie Wilmot, a security guard and CDC supporter, said he felt the preliminary results pointed to election rigging.

“I’m not feeling good about the results,” said Mr. Wilmot. “I feel like cheating is going on and Sirleaf is paying bribes to win the election.”

Wilmot’s comment comes the day after the CDC’s Tubman complained to the electoral commission, alleging that electoral staff had tampered with a small number of ballot boxes.

Another CDC supporter, public administration student Sedike Swairer, said the results were unclear at this stage. But he too was certain that his party would win.

“The people of Liberia will choose the CDC because they want jobs and a better life for themselves.”

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