Weah stays just ahead in Liberia shoot-out
· Soccer star v academic star in presidential race· War-ravaged nation set to back strongest personality
Claire Soares in Monrovia
Wednesday November 09 2005
For George Weah, it was the political equivalent of a penalty shoot-out. The former AC Milan and Chelsea striker took on former finance minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf at the ballot box yesterday in an effort to become Liberia's first postwar president.
With UN peacekeepers standing guard, the west African nation held its first ever presidential runoff and whoever wins will make history. Ms Johnson-Sirleaf, 66, would be Africa's first elected female leader. Mr Weah, 39, would be the world's first top footballer to become head of state. Most observers say the vote is too close to call.
"Here people vote more for personalities than for parties and we have two big personalities. It's a real race," said Max van den Berg, head of the European Union's observer mission.
Mr Weah, dubbed King George by his legions of young supporters, topped the first-round ballot in October with 28% of the vote, followed by Ms Johnson-Sirleaf with 20%. But it was still far short of the 50% plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.
"I won the first round and I'm hoping and praying that I win again," Mr Weah told reporters after casting his vote in the outskirts of the capital, Monrovia.
Ms Johnson-Sirleaf was equally upbeat. "I have confidence in the Liberian people that they will vote wisely and we are going to respect and accept their choice whatever it is," she told the Guardian.
The choice facing Liberia's 1.3 million registered voters is an unusual one: a high school dropout who brought glory to his country on football pitches overseas when life back home was about dodging the drugged-up child soldiers and stray bullets; or a Harvard-educated economist and veteran politician, known as the Iron Lady for her tough and tenacious style.
"Educated people in the past have failed. All we had with them was war. We need someone different to rebuild the nation," said Tolley Fasu, 22, who is unemployed.
But others believe that with rusted ships still clogging the port, a UN ban on the export of the country's plentiful diamond and timber reserves, and unemployment at more than 80%, now is the time for experience.
"With the state that Liberia's in, we need an economist more than at any other time," said Alex Cooper, 25, who was queuing to cast his ballot outside a church where 600 people were massacred during the war.
"It's not the moment to bring a footballer off the field and put him in the presidential palace."
The 14-year civil war, which ended in August 2003, left a quarter of a million people dead, forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and reduced a resource-rich country to rubble.
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