Liberia votes in tight presidential run-off as many voters seek change

Reuters  — 

Liberians voted 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 between the two old rivals.

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

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 voting because I need peace, more development,” said Future Barbour, a mother of four who was selling rice outside a polling station in the capital Monrovia. “My children are not going to school because I have no job.”

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.

Meanwhile 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.

A Reuters reporter saw queues of people at polling stations across Monrovia early on Tuesday, but voting appeared to be lighter than the first round which saw a record turnout of 79 percent 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 that 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.

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 percent 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.

Any alleged irregularities in the second round could potentially fuel unrest, but there had been no reports of problems on Tuesday morning.

“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.”

‘A better Liberia’

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 has been unable to ease widespread poverty or stamp out corruption.

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

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

Many want change.

“I am voting for my children’s future… to have a free country where there will be no armed robbery, where children can move freely,” said Samuel Carr, who voted in Monrovia.

“I want to see a better Liberia.”

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