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Liberia's Second-Round Vote Marked By Threats, Confusion

The campaign for Liberia's decisive second-round presidential vote next Tuesday has been marked by confusing alliances, a lack of debate, and threats of violence. With just two candidates in the running, war-shattered Liberia has become much more polarized than during the crowded first round.

Supporters of former soccer star George Weah have been parading in the streets of Monrovia, in impromptu caravans, but most campaigning has been taking place in more remote areas outside the capital.

A presidential debate was supposed to take place Thursday, but Mr. Weah, bowed out, disappointing one of the supporters of his opponent, former finance minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

"I see the debate as a way of informing our people on current political issues, what they intend to do for the Liberian people and what their platforms look like, so I was very disappointed when there was no debate," he said.

Mrs. Sirleaf, who trailed Mr. Weah by 8.5 percentage points in the first round, has gotten the support of many members of the former ruling party, including the senator-elect wife of the exiled president, Charles Taylor, Jewel Howard Taylor.

"We need a leader who is seasoned, who has been a part of government, who has the international contact, who can bring those things to bear into Liberia and I think Mrs. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the right president for this time," said Jewel Howard Taylor.

The influential youth wing of the Liberty Party is also supporting Mrs. Sirleaf, even though its leader, first-round third-place finisher Charles Brumskine says he does not want to, "pervert God's will and lean toward either candidate".

Fourth-place finisher Winston Tubman, and his party, are supporting Mr. Weah, stressing the native Liberian, who grew up poor and uneducated like most other Liberians, is the best hope for the country's unity.

Like many other african countries, Liberia has been strained by ethnic tensions, especially friction between the descendants of freed American slaves and other ethnic groups.

Mr. Tubman says these ethnic conflicts must end.

"This Americo-Liberian, Congo thing continues to haunt Liberian politics," he said. "It is still affecting our politics, we must find a way of putting it to bed once and for all."

But Mr. Tubman's own running mate in the first round is supporting Mrs. Sirleaf rather than Mr. Weah, highlighting divisions of allegiance in most parties that had failed presidential candidates and won seats in the one-round legislative poll.

The campaign for the second round has also been marked by threats of arson attacks and threats in phone calls and text messages, especially to journalists, such as Othello Garblah from the New Democrat newspaper, seen by some as favorable to Mrs. Sirleaf.

"Recently, of late, actually, it has been the text messages coming in, 'That makes sure we deal with you', 'Make sure we burn down your offices', and things," said Othello Garblah. "Most of those threats have been linked to the CDC of football star George Weah and almost all my staff received similar threats on their mobile phones."

Mr. Weah's Congress for Democratic Change has called for its candidates' supporters to be non-violent, while the 15,000 strong U.N. peacekeeping mission says it will be robust in making sure the second-round process is as peaceful as possible, marking the end of a transition period following years of civil war, economic mismanagement, and political turbulence.