Liberians voted on Tuesday in the West African state's second presidential election since a civil war, with international appeals for rival supporters to stay peaceful during the hotly-contested poll.
The election pits the incumbent, Nobel peace laureate Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, against former U.N. diplomat Winston Tubman and 14 others. It comes as Liberia stands to gain billions of dollars in foreign investment in its mining sector and its potential emergence as an oil nation.
Here are brief profiles of the main players:
Africa's first elected female head of state, Johnson-Sirleaf, 72, is to her admirers a potent symbol of hope in the continent. A Harvard-educated economist, Johnson-Sirleaf's early political career was cut short by the civil war, when she fled to work for the World Bank. Since winning the 2005 election she has secured debt relief and stability for Liberia but her critics accuse of her not doing enough to tackle rampant poverty and corruption. Going back on an earlier promise to be a single-term president, Johnson-Sirleaf declared in January 2010 she would stand again. She has had to answer awkward questions about her earlier support for rebel leader Charles Taylor, whom she later abandoned. On Friday, she won a pre-election boost by being jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to women's rights.
A nephew of Liberia's longest serving president, William Tubman, the Harvard- and Cambridge-educated lawyer is the personification of the Americo-Liberian elite that have dominated political life in Liberia since its 1847 founding by freed U.S. slaves. Tubman had a long U.N. career before entering Liberian politics, ending up as Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative in Somalia. A distant fourth in the 2005 election, Tubman acknowledges he lacks appeal with young voters -- hence is decision to choose ex-soccer superstar George Weah as his vice-presidential running mate.
Former AC Milan and Chelsea striker "King George" Weah, 45, was World FIFA Player of the Year in 1995 and remains wildly popular with the Liberian youth that make up anything up to a half of the total vote. He ran on his own ticket in 2005 and was placed ahead of Johnson-Sirleaf in the first round -- but her credentials as an economist and administrator convinced most Liberians to back her in the run-off. A descendant of a poor ethnic Kru family, Weah's slum-to-fame story inspires many Liberians desperate for a symbol of success, but despite his work as a committed humanitarian, his political experience remains limited. The joint ticket with Tubman is seen as a way of leveraging his street popularity to the advantage of both.
A former warlord who says he has quit drinking and deepened his Christian faith, Prince "Yormie" Johnson was first on the post-war Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission's list of 116 "most notorious perpetrators," accused of crimes ranging from "killing, extortion, massacre, destruction of property, force recruitment, assault, abduction, torture & forced labour, rape." To many Liberians, he is most famous for starring in a home-made video in which he is seen sipping Budweiser beer while his soldiers carve off the ear of former president Samuel Doe, who was later found dead. Now a senator in his home region of Nimba County in the country's interior, he told Reuters last week his priority is maintaining peace in Liberia and has vowed to respect the result of a free and fair election.
(Writing by Mark John; Editing by Giles Elgood)