MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Vote counting continued across Liberia Wednesday following presidential elections that are likely to go to a runoff with 20 candidates contesting, local media and observers say.
Ex-soccer star George Weah and Vice President Joseph Boakai are leading, according to unofficial results reported by the state-run Liberia Broadcasting System.
"There is a likelihood that there will be a runoff election," the network reported based on figures seen by its correspondents across the country.
More than 2.1 million voters had registered to vote at nearly 5,400 polling stations throughout Liberia, which was established by the United States in the 19th century for freed black slaves.
Voters chose among 20 presidential contenders and nearly 1,000 candidates from 26 political parties vying for 73 seats in the House of Representatives. A presidential candidate must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a second round.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first female president, will step aside after two six-year terms in office. She led the country's recovery from a 14-year civil war and guided this West African country through the Ebola crisis that killed nearly 5,000 people.
Voters commended her leadership but also said they are ready for change when they lined up for Tuesday's historic vote.
"As a longstanding friend, the United States applauds the people of Liberia for exercising their democratic right to vote in the historic presidential and legislative elections," said a statement from U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. "This is an important step toward achieving Liberia's first peaceful transfer of power from one democratically-elected head of state to another in decades."
International observers say Tuesday's vote went smoothly despite late starts in some counties. Final results should be known within two weeks. If there is a runoff election it will come two weeks after that announcement.
The turnout was impressive, especially among the younger generations, said Christopher Fomunyoh, of the U.S. funded National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, which is monitoring the elections.
He said Liberia's youth demonstrated "a commitment to be involved in the electoral and governmental process of their country. All of these people are saying they want change and improvement, and that explains why almost all of the candidates are presenting themselves as candidates for change."
Fomunyoh, who also observed Liberia's 2005 elections, said Sirleaf helped create an environment for an open race with such a high number of candidates.
Petesch contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal.