Liberian President Poised to Win Re-election in Tense Runoff

BY Larisa Epatko  November 9, 2011 at 4:33 PM EDT


Liberians cast their ballots in Tuesday’s presidential runoff. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

Many Liberians and their friends in the West had hoped the country, once plagued by civil war, was continuing its march to democracy. But the presidential run-off election Tuesday has dashed some of those hopes as violence erupted and the major opposition candidate boycotted the race.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ended up running uncontested in Tuesday’s runoff, and tensions between the government and opposition that had been growing prior to the vote haven’t dimmed since.

Emily Schmall, who has been reporting in Liberia on the elections for GlobalPost, told us confusion still surrounds an incident on Monday where rallying members of the main opposition party clashed with police in the capital Monrovia.

Both sides offered different versions of events and even body counts. The opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change, said eight people died, while police said at a press conference Wednesday that they found no evidence that anyone died, said Schmall.

Liberian Justice Minister Christiana Tah confirmed one death.

The government’s actions stoked tempers even before the week of the presidential runoff when it didn’t let the opposition use the main stadium in Monrovia for a campaign rally and closed a pro-opposition television network and two radio stations, the New York Times reported.

Sirleaf’s competitor, lawyer and former U.N. diplomat Winston Tubman, pulled out of the runoff, and urged his supporters to boycott the election, claiming the first-round vote on Oct. 11 was rigged. In that vote, Sirleaf received 44 percent to Tubman’s 33 percent.

Schmall said she revisited the same polling stations on Tuesday that had long lines during the first-round vote on Oct. 11, and saw people trickling in one-by-one throughout the day with many other voters apparently heeding the boycott.

Opposition party supporters congregated opposite some polling sites. “They told me they would not vote because they would not legitimize Monday’s killing,” said Schmall. “There’s also a sense among many Liberians that the international community forced Tuesday’s election, refusing to consider their allegations of fraud.”

Sirleaf is popular in the Western world, and just days before the first round of the election, won the Nobel Peace Prize, along with two other women — another Liberian native, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — for her work on women’s rights.

But she has her detractors at home. Many Liberians continue to live in poverty, without access to safe drinking water or electricity, said Schmall. “And although Sirleaf has made poverty reduction one of her first administration’s priorities, most people have yet to feel the effects of the program.”

In addition, young, out-of-work Liberians who were drawn to the main opposition party — mostly through the star appeal of soccer player George Weah, who was Tubman’s running mate — feel they have been neglected by Sirleaf’s government, Schmall said.

Final results of Tuesday’s presidential runoff are expected Thursday. (Track results as they come in on the Liberia Media Center’s website.)

Watch a NewsHour report on how Liberia’s oil, diamonds and timber are both a blessing and a curse for the fledgling democracy:

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