"King George" squares up for election run-off with "Iron Lady"

Soccer legend George Weah looks set to go head-to-head with former finance minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in a run-off to decide who will be the next president of war-battered Liberia, according to preliminary results released on Monday.

With returns in from 95 percent of polling stations across the heavily forested country, Weah was in the lead with 28.8 percent of the votes and Sirleaf was trailing in second with 20.0 percent.

A candidate must get 50 percent plus one vote to be declared the winner of Liberia's first presidential elections since the end of a 14-year civil war.

"Looking at the numbers above... the NEC sees it prudent to begin preparations for a presidential election run-off," Frances Johnson-Morris, the head of the National Elections Commission, told reporters on Monday evening.

"The run-off election will be held on November 8," she added.

Almost a week after Liberians went to the polls, radios are still constantly tuned to news bulletins and residents hang around on street corners animatedly discussing the latest twists and turns and moaning about how slowly the results are coming in.

Johnson-Morris said death threats had been sent by text message to her mobile phone, warning she would be killed if she did not "release the results well."

Meanwhile, the political jockeying has already begun ahead of the November run-off.

"We are preparing for the second round," Rudolph Johnson, Weah's running mate, told IRIN on Monday.

Both camps are trying to win endorsements from some of the other 20 hopefuls who contested last Tuesday's first-round ballot.

Top of the list will be former Senate leader Charles Brumskine, who is currently on 13.9 percent, and Winston Tubman, a onetime UN special envoy, who has so far captured 9.4 percent of the votes.

Behind-the-scenes wrangling

"We are talking to almost everyone. The message we are carrying is what's good for Liberia," said Sirleaf's campaign manager, John Bestman, in between meetings. "We are confident."

Frances Johnson-Morris, head of Liberia's National Elections Commission, briefs reporters

Cole Bangalu, chairman of Weah's political party, was also in an upbeat mood.

"We are constructively engaging other parties to see how they can join forces with us. We are getting a very positive response. We believe the run-off will give an overwhelming result in our favour," he said.

Liberians hope that the polls will cement peace and stability in this West African nation, torn apart by a brutal civil war between 1989 and 2003, which left an estimated quarter of a million people dead and forced hundreds of thousands of others to flee their homes.

A run-off would give the country a choice between "King George", a roaring success on a football pitch but untested in the political arena, and veteran opposition leader Sirleaf, known as the "Iron Lady" because of her no-nonsense political style.

Sirleaf, a 66-year-old grandmother, boasts a resume including stints at the World Bank and the United Nations. She says an experienced head is needed to kick-start Liberia's battered economy and use its abundant natural resources to make it the pride of West Africa.

Weah, who grew up in a shantytown kicking a ball about barefoot before playing for the cream of Europe's clubs, says he understands the youth and the underprivileged. The 39-year-old believes his lack of political experience is a bonus because it means he has clean hands.

As the negotiations play out behind closed doors ahead of the formal announcement of a run-off, some Liberians are cynical, saying any alliances will be more about personal gain than political values.

"It would have been better if the politicians had teamed up before the first round but politicians are greedy," said 32-year-old Varney Lake, whose store in the capital, Monrovia, sells everything from shampoo to kitchen sinks.

"No-one wanted to give up the chair, everyone wanted to be president so we had to choose between 22 people! And now we're going to have to vote all over again."