Liberians Decide

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Liberian voters are deciding whether to hand former footballer George Weah a second term as president or to elect veteran Joseph Boakai. With the two neck-and-necks in the first round, the runoff is expected to be close. The presidential election runoff in Liberia got underway on Tuesday morning as voters headed to the polls to decide whether to give current incumbent George Weah a second term despite a controversial record, or to turn instead to 78-year-old former vice-president Joseph Boakai, a veteran of Liberian politics. Former football star Weah, the only African to win the prestigious Ballon d’Or in 1995, had a narrow lead in the first round of voting on October 10, winning 43.83% of the vote to Boakai’s 43.44% – a razor-thin margin of just 7,126 votes and well short of the 50% needed to secure outright victory.  Percent, but observers are expecting the second round of voting to be much closer this time around. This year’s election is the first since the United Nations ended its peacekeeping mission in Liberia in 2018, set up after more than 250,000 people died in two civil wars between 1989 and 2003. Will George Weah win a second term? Since then, Weah, who grew up in the slums of the capital city, Monrovia, but went on to play for top European football clubs including Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, is widely seen as approachable and peaceful. Popular among younger voters, he says he has supported education, built roads and hospitals, and brought electricity into homes. “I think he is the best person to vote for,” Taiyee Success Iledare, a 22-year-old student waiting to cast her ballot in Duazon, a suburb Monrovia, told the French AFP news agency. “When you look around you see a lot of development. So when he wins I want him to make sure he deals with the issue of drugs that is destroying our young people.” Weah was also president when the Covid-19 pandemic hit at a time when Liberia was still recovering economically from civil war and the 2014-2016 Ebola epidemic. ‘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% in 2022, driven by gold production and a relatively good harvest, but more than 80% of the population still faces 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.” Can Joseph Boakai combat corruption? But his detractors say he is disconnected from the realities of skyrocketing prices and shortages a country where a fifth of the population lives on less than $2.15 a day, according to the World Bank. Rival Boakai, a political veteran who has held a multitude of positions in the public and private sectors and is known colloquially as JNB, also blames Weah for a series of scandals and corruption, which is endemic in Liberia and has only worsened on the incumbent’s watch, according to Transparency International. “I feel that [Boakai] will make a change,” said Irene Palwor, a 41-year-old market trader in Monrovia. “JNB will create job opportunities for women and for the young.” How many people can vote? Turnout is expected to be less than the record 78.86% in the first round last month, when the presidential vote was coupled with parliamentary elections, but it is still set to be an important factor, according Lawrence Yealue, who runs the civil society group Accountability Lab Liberia. Another key point will be who the 6% of voters whose ballots were invalidated in the first round favor in the runoff. More than 2.4 million people are registered to vote, with polls open between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. “We want to thank all Liberians who left their bed this morning. Stay on the line and vote,” the head of the national elections commission, Davidetta Browne-Lansanah, told state radio, while Reuters reported seeing queues of people at five different polling stations in Monrovia on Tuesday. The electoral commission has 15 days to publish the results but could do so sooner, one of its officials said.

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