- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 2, 2005

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MONROVIA, Liberia — George Weah, Liberia’s soccer hero and presidential front-runner, has backed out of a debate scheduled for today with his rival, debate organizers said Tuesday.

Mr. Weah set off on a campaign tour of the Liberia on Monday instead, a decision that observers suggested could hinder his bid to beat Harvard-educated banker and economist Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the second-round vote set for Nov. 8.

“The news regarding [Mr. Weah’s] unavailability has been a disappointment for many Liberians who have been looking forward to a run-off debate,” Sidi Diawara of the National Democratic Institute told AFP.

“I was personally approached by several individuals who told me that a debate should be mandatory, but as I told them, inasmuch as a debate is useful in a democratic process, we cannot oblige any candidate to participate.”

Mr. Weah’s lack of a formal education and political inexperience have been cited as key reasons he should not bear the task of rebuilding the country, shattered by back-to-back civil wars since 1989.

By absenting himself from the debate, observers said privately, he was feeding those perceptions.

Mrs. Sirleaf’s Unity Party pounced on the decision in a gleeful statement “wondering how Mr. Weah expects to communicate his vision and agenda to international partners ranging from development theorists to scientists if he cannot talk to his nation and people about his plans to lead this country.”

Representatives for Mr. Weah said the candidate of the Congress for Democratic Change would spend the last week of the campaign touring the interior of this densely forested country, hoping to cement his support among the 1.35 million registered voters.

Mr. Weah racked up key endorsements last week, and now has the support of 10 of the 20 defeated first-round candidates after announcements from fourth-place finisher Winston Tubman, a former U.N. special envoy to Somalia, and on Saturday from Alhaji Kromah, a former warlord from Liberia’s first civil war.

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