MONROVIA (Reuters) - Former soccer star George Weah won the first round of Liberia’s presidential election with 38.4 percent of the vote, 10 points ahead of Vice President Joseph Boakai who will face him in a run-off next month, the electoral commission said on Thursday.
Liberians are slowly waking up to the prospect of the only African ever to win FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or replace Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as their leader.
Weah, 51, has served as a senator from the opposition Congress for Democratic Change since 2015, after returning home from an international soccer career to immerse himself in politics. As a political novice in 2005 he lost to Johnson Sirleaf in a presidential election.
The official final results showed Boakai, representing Johnson Sirleaf’s ruling Unity Party, had won 28.8 percent of the vote, putting the two frontrunners comfortably ahead of a large field of mostly minor candidates.
Lawyer Charles Brumskine, who says the vote was rigged despite observers calling it fair, came third with 9.6 percent.
“King George”, as Weah’s supporters call him, is wildly popular among the youth and the disenfranchised, especially in the shanties of the rundown seaside capital Monrovia. Many of them feel they have not benefited from Liberia’s post-war recovery, a sentiment that has counted against Boakai.
But Weah has so far been light on policy and will face a tough time meeting high expectations in a difficult economic climate of low prices for the commodities that are Liberia’s main exports.
Johnson Sirleaf, a former finance minister who worked for Citibank and the World Bank during years in exile after fleeing Liberia during a coup, was awarded the 2011 Nobel for shoring up peace after a 15-year civil war that ended in 2003.
Many Liberians credit her with creating the conditions that allow this election to bring Liberia’s first democratic transfer of power for seven decades. But she has not managed to effectively tackle corruption or lift millions out of poverty.
An Ebola outbreak ravaged the economy and a drop in the price of iron ore only made things worse. Poor roads still leave most of rural Liberia stranded during the rainy season, and few Liberians have grid power outside the main cities.
Additional reporting by James Harding Giahyue; writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Peter Graff