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Liberia's presidential front-runners will likely face off in runoff

NAIROBI, Kenya—Liberia's presidential election appears headed for a runoff between a Harvard-educated economist nicknamed the "Iron Lady" and a soccer hero many call "King George."

With votes tallied from more than 92 percent of the polling stations, George Weah, a former world soccer player of the year, leads with 28.9 percent. Former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is second with 19.7 percent, according to results released Monday.

Neither was close to gaining the outright majority needed to win the presidency from a field of 22 candidates in last Tuesday's election, the first in the troubled West African country since a 14-year civil war ended in 2003.

Final results are expected by Oct. 26. A runoff would be in early November.

Liberia, Africa's oldest independent republic, was founded in 1821 by freed slaves from the United States. The small coastal nation is rich in resources such as timber and rubber, but civil wars in the 1990s killed more than 200,000 people and left the country's infrastructure in shambles.

Voter turnout was high _74.1 percent at the polling places whose results have been tallied—as many in the country called the elections their country's best chance to regain stability.

The showdown between Weah and Johnson-Sirleaf was widely expected. Throughout the race, their rallies drew the largest crowds, with Weah's support strongest among young males—many of them former fighters in the civil war—while Johnson-Sirleaf was the choice of the educated class.

Weah has captured the hopes of Liberia's youth, who think that as a newcomer to politics he's untainted by the violence and corruption of the country's past.

In a show of strength for his candidacy, Weah has a comfortable nine-point lead in Montserrado County, where the country's capital, Monrovia, is. Johnson-Sirleaf had been expected to do well there, the country's most populous region.

Despite her qualifications—she did stints at the World Bank, Citibank and the United Nations—and reputation for tenacity, she's struggled to explain her past support for dictator Charles Taylor, who presided over Liberia's decline in the 1990s before being forced into exile in 2003.

Vote-counting has proceeded faster than expected, although it will take several more days for all the results to arrive in Monrovia from counting centers across the country because Liberia has few paved roads.

International observers praised the election as open, competitive and largely free of violence. Voters waited patiently, sometimes for several hours, as more than 15,000 United Nations peacekeepers kept close watch over polling stations.

Gibson Jerue, the news editor for The Analyst newspaper in Monrovia, said Liberians were prepared for the runoff and that there was no reason to expect violence.

"There has been a lot of friendliness in this campaign," Jerue said. "It will be a peaceful runoff."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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