Deadly riot breaks out in Liberia day before vote

November 7, 2011 - 11:35 AM
Liberia Election

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, front, walks with Prince Johnson, right, as they arrive for a rally at the Stephen Tubman Estates, in Monrovia, Liberia, on the final day of campaigning, Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. Liberia's president has urged voters to go to the polls this week and to ignore a boycott by the opposition. Opposition presidential candidate Winston Tubman announced Friday he is pulling out of the November 8 presidential runoff election, a move that would guarantee victory for the country's ruling party but would rob the electoral process of its legitimacy. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Violence broke out at the headquarters of Liberia's main opposition party and at least one person was killed Monday, less than 24 hours before a presidential runoff vote that is being viewed as a test of the country's fragile peace after a devastating civil war.

It was unclear what caused the rioting outside the Congress for Democratic Change party, but Monrovia has been tense ever since the CDC's candidate Winston Tubman called for his supporters to boycott Tuesday's vote. International observers have rejected his allegation that the electoral process is rigged in the incumbent's favor, and analysts say he is pulling out of the vote because he knows he will lose.

On Monday afternoon, at least 100 Liberian security forces and United Nations peacekeepers descended on the Congo Town neighborhood of Monrovia, where they secured the perimeter of the CDC headquarters, setting up roadblocks to redirect traffic.

An Associated Press photographer saw a man lying inside the headquarters, his head bloodied. Debris including rocks were strewn across the road, and witnesses told the AP that security forces opened fire after the rioting broke out.

Tubman trailed incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by a more than 10-point margin in the first round of voting in October, finishing with around 30 percent of the vote to Sirleaf's more than 40 percent. Sirleaf, a Harvard-educated economist who was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has since been endorsed by the third-place finisher and it appeared likely that she would win the Nov. 8 runoff.

Tubman's boycott will not stop Sirleaf from winning, but it could damage the credibility of the election and undercut her victory since she will be running unopposed.

Electoral law allows candidates to pull out before the start of the election, but once the election is already in progress, ballots cannot be altered and so both Tubman and Sirleaf will appear on Tuesday's ballot, said Alexander Bick the head of the Carter Center's observation mission in Liberia.

The Carter Center, as well as the United States and the U.N. Security Council have issued sharp rebukes, calling on Tubman to reverse his decision.

Liberia emerged from a 14-year civil war in 2003 after rebels encircled Monrovia, forcing its warlord leader Charles Taylor to accept an offer of exile.

Sirleaf became the continent's first democratically elected female leader when she defeated soccer star George Weah in the 2005 race. Since then she has been credited with maintaining peace, and with luring hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign investment.

Unemployment and poverty remain among the highest in the world, however, and Tubman attempted to paint Sirleaf as elitist and her administration as corrupt. He threatened to boycott soon after the results from the first round began trickling in following the Oct. 11 poll.

The government agreed to change the head of the electoral commission, whom Tubman said was biased toward the ruling party. But last Friday, Tubman said the concessions did not go far enough and that he was not sure the vote would be fair. He asked for the election to be delayed by up to two months, and when that demand was not met, he gave a speech calling on his supporters to boycott the vote.

"This decision is unfortunate for the electoral process in Liberia, and unfortunate for Liberia's young democracy. The result is that there won't be anything at stake," said International Crisis Group West Africa Director Gilles Yabi, the author of a report on the country's electoral process. "It's motivated by the fact that they (Tubman's party) think they don't have a chance. It's a way to stain the election. To create a problem of credibility for the president."

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Callimachi reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press photographer Rebecca Blackwell contributed to this report.