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In Presidential Runoff, Liberians Choose Between Soccer Star, Vice President


Liberia is choosing a replacement for a historic figure. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is Africa's first woman elected head of state. She's stepping down after 12 years in office, and the race to succeed her is taking a little longer than expected. Now, the first round of the election came in October. Then, the top two candidates made a runoff, which should have happened already. Allegations of vote rigging in a court challenge delayed that runoff until this week. It happened yesterday. It's a contest between Sirleaf's vice president and a former international soccer star. And NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has been following the action. Hi, Ofeibea.


INSKEEP: What is at stake for Liberia in this delayed runoff election?

QUIST-ARCTON: Huge stakes, Steve, because this will be the first time whoever wins, be it Vice President Joseph Boakai or former soccer star George Weah, it will be the first time in 70 years that Liberia is handing, is transferring power from one elected president to another. Can you imagine that?

And Liberians will tell you that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the outgoing president, has managed to cement peace, which is hugely important after back-to-back civil wars and then that Ebola outbreak three years ago in Liberia but that she has not done enough to make Liberians prosper, to pull them out of poverty and to give them jobs and deal with the economy. And also, there have been allegations of corruption. So whoever wins has huge challenges ahead of him.

INSKEEP: OK. So one of the defining moments for a democracy you're saying, a peaceful transfer of power, if Liberians pull that off, that's huge. But then there's the question of who the choice is. You just mentioned the two candidates. You said one of them is a former soccer star?

QUIST-ARCTON: George Weah. He's 51. He's the one who says he is not used to losing. And it's true that on the soccer field, he was extraordinary. He is the only African to have been chosen as the world soccer player of the year, but he has - some say he has limited experience, limited education. Although he has run twice for president, he says he is the candidate of the youth. He is the person who is going to propel Liberia back to prosperity.

Now, the man he's standing against is sometimes called Sleepy Joe because his eyes are seen to close during public meetings. He's 73, has been vice president for the past 12 years. And people say, well, you know, you now say you're going to revive the economy. What have you been doing for the past decade-plus? But Joseph Boakai says he's like a race car that's been idling or parked in the garage for the past 12 years, and now he's really ready to hit the road and take off.

INSKEEP: This sounds like another one of these classic elections where you've got the experienced insider against the outsider.

QUIST-ARCTON: It is exactly that. But the additional thing to say about George Weah is that his vice presidential candidate, the person who's on the ticket with him, is the former wife of Charles Taylor, who was a warlord-turned-president in Liberia and is now serving time for war crimes and crimes against humanity across the border in Sierra Leone. So people say, if Weah wins, who is going to be governing, will it be Taylor from prison or would it be George Weah?

INSKEEP: Another layer there, and in some ways, both of them can be seen as well-connected or insiders. Ofeibea, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

QUIST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure. Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.