By Richard Valdmanis and Alphonso Toweh
MONROVIA (Reuters) - Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has won 44.5 percent of votes counted so far in the West African country's election, the poll body said on Thursday, releasing the first official tally.
That put the newly-named Nobel Peace laureate well ahead of closest rival Winston Tubman on 26.5 percent, but short of the overall majority she would need to avoid a second-round run-off against the former top U.N. diplomat early next month.
National Election Commission chairman James Fromayah told a news conference the tally was based on 195,178 valid ballots counted so far in Sunday's election, for which 1.8 million Liberians were registered to vote.
Former rebel leader Prince Johnson, now a senator in rural Nimba county, scored 19.5 percent, a result which if repeated in the final score could make him a kingmaker for either Johnson-Sirleaf or Tubman.
"If there is a run-off, I will get to my constituencies to ask them which way to go. Based on what they will tell me, I will then make a decision, but for now, I cannot say anything. We represent a huge group of people," Prince Johnson told Reuters earlier on Thursday.
Fromayah said there had been no formal complaints from any candidate so far, but added that Tubman had made what he called an unsubstantiated complaint through unofficial channels of some ballot boxes being broken into.
The vote is seen as a test of Liberia's progress since the 1989-2003 civil war killed nearly a quarter of a million people and left infrastructure in ruins. If smooth, the election could pave the way to billions of dollars in investment in Liberia's mining, energy and agriculture sectors.
"We are all waiting for the results, and from my perspective, I think they will be accepted," said Amadou Kante, a resident of the Sinkor neighborhood in the capital Monrovia.
Voting on Tuesday passed off peacefully in Monrovia. Observer groups said they had received no reports of trouble elsewhere in the country of four million people, but have expressed concern that the results could be a flashpoint.
"The mission is of the view that there were no major irregularities and incidents of violence. It estimated that on the whole, the elections of October 11, 2011 were conducted under acceptable conditions of freedom of voters and transparency of the process," said Attahiru Jega, head of the observer mission from West African bloc ECOWAS.
Election watchdog the Carter Center said on Thursday that voting in the election was "peaceful, orderly and remarkably transparent" and urged Liberians to be patient ahead of official results.
"Until the NEC (National Election Commission) issues preliminary results, political parties and candidates should refrain from any public statements that might undermine the process," it said.
Johnson-Sirleaf got a pre-poll boost with her award of the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday, but rivals have said Liberians will judge her on her success in fighting poverty in a country with an average annual income of $300 a head.
A dispute over the results of the 2005 election, which brought Johnson-Sirleaf to power as Africa's first freely elected female head of state, triggered several days of rioting.
(Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Roche)
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