George and Ellen vie for allies and voters ahead of run-off

With less than two weeks to go before a presidential run-off, soccer legend George Weah and former finance minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf are vying for the backing of the 20 candidates eliminated in the first round. And their supporters.

Under the watchful eye of UN peacekeepers and Liberian police, electoral officials on Wednesday announced the final results of the 11 October ballot and confirmed that no-one had won the required absolute majority.

Weah, the first African to be named world footballer of the year, captured 28.3 percent of the votes. Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who could become Africa's first female leader, came in second with 19.8 percent.

Thursday sees the start of the official campaign for the 8 November run-off, but political jockeying began behind the scenes almost as soon as the first-round ballot was over and "King George" and the "Iron Lady" emerged as the frontrunners.

Weah, a rare success story in a country torn apart by 14 years of civil conflict, touts his shantytown origins and his mass popularity, declaring he is the only one who can engage the legions of idle youths that are crucial to the country's future stability.

His critics say his ambitions are laudable but that now is not the time for a political novice and Liberia needs an experienced head at this crucial juncture in its post-war recovery.

On Wednesday, both candidates offered familiar pitches to sway undecided voters, as well as potential allies.

"The results clearly show that I got the highest number of votes in the first round. This shows the level of massive support from the people," Weah told reporters in the Centennial Pavilion, where he could be inaugurated as the next president of Liberia in January.

"It is time that the Liberian people vote for competence and experience,” Sirleaf said. “With my background and experience, I am sure that the people will elect me as their new leader who will provide equal opportunity for all and take Liberia from its backward state to meaningful development."

Diplomats say positions in the new government are no doubt being offered as sweeteners, but not everyone is rushing to sign up for the George and Ellen camps.

Potential kingmaker Charles Brumskine, the lawyer and one-time Senate leader who finished in third place with 13.9 percent of the vote, has said he will not take sides.

"I believe that God's will cannot, and shall not be perverted. Against this background... I cannot, and therefore will not, endorse another person for the position of president," Brumskine said in a statement.



Fourth-placed candidate Winston Tubman, who won in Maryland and Bong Counties and took 9.2 percent of the vote nationwide, has also stayed neutral, not by a declaration but by his silence.

Endorsements

However, the other strong first-round finisher, Varney Sherman, has shown no such desire to sit on the fence and has donned the colours of team Weah.

"Weah can better reunify Liberia than the other candidate...and I have directed the redeployment of both our financial and political resources to ensure his victory," Sherman told reporters.

Many Liberians consider Sherman -- a corporate lawyer and confidante of interim president Gyude Bryant -- to have the deepest pockets when it comes to financing election campaigns, something which has provided fodder for political cartoons handed out on the streets.

Sherman won 7.8 percent of the presidential vote and his Coalition for the Transformation of Liberia won the second biggest share of the seats up for grabs in the parliamentary elections, including seven out of the 30 Senate seats.

Another half dozen first-round presidential candidates have joined Weah's camp, including Sekou Conneh, who was the leader of the main rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) during the civil war.

Those who have publicly announced they are supporting Sirleaf include Joseph Korto who made a strong showing in Nimba -- the county which has the second highest number of voters -- and Nathaniel Barnes, who served as finance minister under former president Charles Taylor.

"The thing is no longer about individual celebrity," Barnes said in a statement. "We should match experience, credibility, capacity with someone who understands geo-political issues."

While leaders of political parties send out ringing endorsements, some analysts caution against reading too much into the line-up of allies that Weah and Sirleaf can publicly muster.

"Just because your candidate falls out of the race and tells you to vote for someone, doesn't mean you'll automatically do it," said Ju-Tee Daipah, an anthropologist in Monrovia. "You think about things with your own eyes."

He thinks voters may split into educated versus non-educated, which, in a country where the majority of the population are illiterate and unemployed, would favour high-school drop Weah.

Another possible criterion for voting, he says, is ethnicity, with Americo-Liberians clustering around the establishment figure of Sirleaf, while indigenous Liberians go for Weah's rags-to-riches story.