The former international footballer George Weah and Liberia’s vice-president, Joseph Boakai, will face a runoff for the country’s presidency on 7 November, the electoral commission announced on Sunday.
With tallies in from 95.6% of polling stations, Weah took 39% of the votes and Boakai 29.1%, both well short of the 50% barrier required to win outright from the first round of voting held on Tuesday.
Whoever wins the second round of voting will replace Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first elected female head of state, who is stepping down as president after a maximum of two terms.
Jerome Korkoya, the chairman of the National Elections Commission, told journalists that 1,550,923 votes had been counted and turnout was at 74.52% across the small west African nation.
The handover would represent Liberia’s first peaceful transfer of power in more than seven decades.
“Now there are two clear choices. We believe we are the viable alternative,” Wilmot Paye, the national chairman of Boakai’s Unity party, told AFP.
“It’s not a question of who’s leading, it’s a question of who will win the race. And ultimately we’ll win the race,” Paye added, suggesting that votes for the 18 unsuccessful candidates who lost in the first round would move to Boakai.
Wilson Tarpeh, the campaign manager for Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change, said his party was “prepared for a runoff, and we are confident that we are going to win a runoff”.
Three other candidates took a significant share of votes, with the veteran opposition leader Charles Brumskine at 9.8%; former Coca-Cola executive Alexander Cummings at 7.1% and former-warlord-turned-preacher Prince Johnson at 7.0%.
These candidates will now decide which runoff contender they will direct their supporters to follow, holding significant influence over the final results.
“We will do anything legally possible to strengthen ourselves and if that means we have to talk to other people, as long as it’s not unlawful, we will do that,” Tarpeh added, hinting at strategic alliances with other parties.
Liberian voters have a clear choice between an establishment candidate in Boakai, who has served in governments for more than three decades, and the wildly popular but politically inexperienced Weah.
Boakai presents himself as an everybody’s man who transcended his humble beginnings, and has attempted to craft a more energetic image after earning the unfortunate title of “Sleepy Joe” for his propensity to doze at public events.
The vice-president has also had to undertake a delicate balancing act to promote his record in government, while distancing himself from Sirleaf to define his own vision.
This is Weah’s second attempt at the presidency after losing to Sirleaf in 2005.
Weah, the first African player to win both Fifa’s World Player of the Year trophy and the Ballon d’Or, was largely absent from Liberia during the 1989-2003 civil war period, playing for a string of top-flight European teams including PSG and AC Milan.
Weah says he has “gained experience” since becoming a senator in 2014, and after losing to Sirleaf again, this time as a vice-presidential candidate on the ticket of Winston Tubman, in 2011.
Both men are of indigenous descent, as opposed to the “Americo-Liberian” descendants of freed slaves who founded the Liberian nation in 1847 and have dominated its political and economic life ever since.