Troubled Liberia poll could slow Sirleaf agenda

MONROVIA Sun Nov 13, 2011 1:50pm GMT

Liberia's President and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at her office in Monrovia November 11, 2011. Johnson-Sirleaf promised to involve opponents in her second term after winning a landslide victory in an election boycotted by her main rival over fraud allegations. REUTERS/Finbarr O'Reilly

Liberia's President and 2011 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf listens to a question during an interview with Reuters at her office in Monrovia November 11, 2011. Johnson-Sirleaf promised to involve opponents in her second term after winning a landslide victory in an election boycotted by her main rival over fraud allegations.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has ambitious plans for her second presidential term but putting them into action has been made harder by election violence and an opposition boycott which has deepened the country's divisions.

Political deadlock between her government and the opposition would be a setback for the West African nation as it struggles to rebuild after 14 years of civil war that left it in ruins and its people mired in poverty.

At least two people died in a crackdown on opposition protesters by security forces on the eve of Tuesday's election. Challenger Winston Tubman has rejected her victory, alleging the vote was rigged in favour of the newly-named Nobel peace laureate.

"Johnson-Sirleaf's second term will prove controversial," said Hannah Koep, head of Africa analysis at Control Risks. "Large parts of the electorate do not accept her victory, and the protesters' deaths will be blamed on her administration."

Johnson-Sirleaf, who in 2005 became Africa's only freely-elected female head of state, took 90.6 percent of the ballots in a November 8 run-off election, near-complete voter tallies show.

But turnout was a mere 38 percent as Tubman supporters, many of them unemployed former fighters, followed his boycott call.

Stability in Liberia is a vital piece in the security make-up of West Africa, a region trying to move on from decades of civil wars and coups in countries such as Ivory Coast, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

Johnson-Sirleaf, accused by critics of having little to show for her first term, told Reuters Friday she would use her new term to cut poverty in half, create jobs, nurture double-digit economic growth and build up infrastructure and basic utilities.

But she admitted the election troubles could make the start of her second term tougher.

"My task initially will be a bit harder because I now have to reach out to many of those, particularly young people, who may feel disaffected and may feel marginalised," she said.

Johson-Sirleaf said she would also "reach out" to leaders of all political parties in a spirit of reconciliation -- but it is not clear at the moment who is ready to take her hand.

Tubman, who took 33 percent of votes in the first round in October, declared the process "a political farce of the highest order" Saturday and said his CDC party was seeking legal options to have Johnson-Sirleaf's win annulled.

"WE JUST NEED PATIENCE"

Regardless of what happens to any legal challenge, Tubman says he will not cooperate with her government, raising the prospect her initiatives could be slowed in a hung parliament where her UP party failed to win a majority in October polls.

"The opposition announced that it will take up the seats that it won in the legislative elections, despite having called for a boycott of the presidential run-off," Koep said.

"Johnson-Sirleaf is used to ruling with a minority in the legislature. However, questions over her legitimacy will strengthen opposition to her this term, leading to an even slower legislative process and stalling reforms."

That may add uncertainty for foreign investors, who have earmarked billions of dollars for mining and other natural resources projects in the country.

Liberia is hoping iron ore being mined by groups such as ArcelorMittal will boost reconstruction and that drilling offshore will strike oil. It is in the process of reviewing laws on how revenues from such resources are handled.

"Liberia should be fine, but Johnson-Sirleaf will have a harder time, a more difficult second mandate due to the opposition, accounting for a third of the electorate," said Lydie Boka, head of France-based risk consultancy StrategiCo.

For now at least, Liberia has avoided the worst-case scenario of the election triggering widespread and sustained civil unrest. Yet on the streets of Monrovia, even the president's supporters know there will be no overnight solutions to their problems.

"I warmly embrace the election," said Allen Johnson, a taxi driver in Monrovia. "Ma Ellen has been trying and I know things will get better in the next six years. We just need patience."

(Editing by Mark John/Ruth Pitchford)

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