Liberians Elect New President as Johnson Sirleaf Steps DownBy
Run-off held in November if no candidate wins 50 percent
Johnson Sirleaf oversaw return to peace, economic expansion
Liberians vote Tuesday to choose a new legislature as well as a president to replace Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from among 20 candidates who include a retired soccer star, a former warlord and a wealthy chicken farmer.
Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female president who’s governed the impoverished nation for 12 years, has thrown her support behind Vice President Joseph Boakai, 72. He’s the leader of the ruling Unity Party, which is widely credited with consolidating peace in a country left in ruins by a civil war that ended in 2003.
“I want a change in my country,” said voter Ma Hawa Swaray after casting her ballot in the capital, Monrovia. Better education, better roads and more jobs were among the things she hoped for, she said.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. and are scheduled to close at 6 p.m. Some voters in Monrovia already began queuing at 5 a.m.
The vote in the West African nation, founded for freed American slaves almost 200 years ago, could see Liberia transfer power from one elected president to another for the first time in more than half a century. The economy expanded at an average rate of 7.5 percent a year between 2006 and 2013 until the nation was hit by the worst-ever Ebola epidemic that killed thousands of people. That, combined with a sharp drop in output of iron ore, Liberia’s main source of foreign currency, meant there was zero growth between 2014 and 2016.
The opposition candidates include ex-A.C. Milan soccer star George Weah, poultry farmer Benoni Urey and Prince Yormie Johnson, a former warlord turned preacher.
Weah, 51, is especially popular among young people but failed to win in two previous elections: as a presidential candidate in 2005, and as the deputy for the Coalition for Democratic Change in 2011. His vice presidential pick is Jewel Howard Taylor, the ex-wife of former President Charles Taylor, who’s serving a 50-year sentence in a U.K. prison for atrocities committed during a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone. The Taylors divorced in 2006.
The vote will go to a run-off in November if no candidate wins 50 percent of the votes in the first round. As many as 986 contestants are vying for 73 seats in the House of Representatives.
During her years in office, Johnson Sirleaf won $4.6 billion in debt relief and increased government revenue by bringing in mining and palm-oil companies and attracting Chinese investment. At the same time, she admitted in her annual speech in January that she lost the fight against the “national cancer” of corruption.