MONROVIA Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is poised to win reelection in a run-off on Tuesday, though her rival has vowed to reject the results after pulling out of the race over allegations of fraud.
The vote was meant to gauge the West African state's progress since a devastating civil war ended in 2003 and pave the way for new investment, but fears are rising it could instead open the door to open-ended political turmoil.
"I will go pray tonight that there will be peace for Liberia," said Akisame Johnson, a 50-year-old resident of the crumbling seaside capital Monrovia.
"Ma Ellen's people come up and down here to say of course election will take place on Tuesday, but Tubman's people come and say no. The children confused. We don't know what will happen," he said in the local pidgin dialect.
Johnson-Sirleaf took nearly 44 percent of the first round vote on October 11 and has since won the endorsement of the third-place finisher, former warlord Prince Johnson, all but sealing her victory in the second round run-off.
But her chief rival, former U.N. diplomat Winston Tubman - who took roughly 33 percent in the first round - announced last week he would withdraw from the November 8 race and called on Liberians to boycott the poll due to evidence of fraud.
"Something was done to the figures, they were doctored, they were changed, they were altered. That is our belief," Tubman told Reuters in an interview on Sunday.
He said he was seeking changes to Liberia's vote-counting procedures and a delay to the run-off of between two and four weeks, adding that his party would reject the results if the election goes ahead on Tuesday as planned.
"I think that at the end of the day we will have to evaluate what is likely to be better for the country: delaying the elections or going forward with them in a way that doesn't carry the support of such a big party in the country," Tubman said.
"The impact on the region would be huge if we were to descend into chaos again." He said he had urged his supporters not to be violent on polling day.
U.N. "DEEPLY CONCERNED"
International election observers called the October 11 vote mostly free and fair, and the United States, regional bloc ECOWAS and the African Union have all criticized Tubman's decision to boycott the second round.
The United Nations Security Council said on Sunday it was "deeply concerned" by the boycott announcement, and added that it had received reports that members of Liberia's national electoral body had received threats. It gave no details.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who campaigned to cheering crowds in the capital on Sunday, called the boycott unconstitutional.
Liberia is one of the world's least developed countries with over half of its people surviving on less than U.S. 50 cents a day. Fourteen years of on-and-off fighting that ended in 2003 killed nearly a quarter of a million people and left its infrastructure in ruins.
Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa's first freely elected female head of state in 2005, and has been internationally praised for reducing the country's debt and maintaining peace. But she faces criticism within for the slow pace of development.
Analysts had anticipated that a smooth election would trigger a surge in foreign investment in resources like iron ore and oil, which have already attracted major firms like ArcelorMittal, BHP Billiton and Anadarko Petroleum.
"A ... boycott would indeed undermine the credibility of the election in that the elections would not reflect the views of all voters," said Lydie Boka, head of risk consultancy StrategiCo. "It would also open the door to endless claims and accusations that the regime is not democratic."
Joint U.N. and Liberian national police convoys patrolled the streets of Monrovia at slow speeds as residents looked on.
"For me, all we want is peace," said Rachael Dennis, a mother of four who works at a market stall.
"Those who say they will not vote, it is their right to say so. For those who will go to vote too, it is their right. All that I am saying is there should be no hala-hala," she said, using the local term for violence.
(Editing by David Lewis)