By Clair MacDougall
MONROVIA (Reuters)- Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's Nobel Peace Prize may help her win a second term, but risks aggravating tensions in a country scarred by civil war.
Voters in the West African nation will head to the polls next Tuesday in the second presidential election since the end of fighting that killed more than 200,000 and left its infrastructure in ruins.
In the dilapidated capital Monrovia, many Liberians reacted with a spontaneous outburst of pride at the announcement by the Norwegian committee, but political foes were angered.
"During the civil war our country's image ... was of a country filled with war, cannibalism and human rights abuses," said Cornelius Sarplah, a 55-year-old civil engineer.
"Since she has come to power, she has changed that image and shown that we are a peaceful people," he said.
Christiana Nyepan, a 48-year-old teacher and supporter of the opposition CDC party, disagreed.
"She has not created peace in Liberia or improved the situation for women. If she had, there would not be all this rape going on around the country," she said, voicing concerns over security felt by many Liberians.
Johnson-Sirleaf, who shares the award with fellow Liberian Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist, and Yemeni activist Tawakul Karman, said the prize was recognition of Liberia's "many years of struggle for justice, peace, and promotion of development."
"I believe we (Gbowee and I) both accept this on behalf of the Liberian people, and the credit goes to the Liberian people," Johnson-Sirleaf told reporters outside her private residence in Monrovia.
"MONKEY REST IN PEACE"
But the timing of the award four days ahead of an election, in which she will face off against opposition rivals Winston Tubman and former rebel leader Prince Johnson, has raised some eyebrows among her critics and could ramp up tensions.
Across town from Johnson-Sirleaf's residence, around 45,000 Tubman supporters packed into a stadium for a rally.
One opposition supporter was dressed as a caricature of Johnson-Sirleaf while others carried a coffin with a Liberian flag draped across it saying "Monkey Rest in Peace" -- a jibe at her campaign slogan "Monkey Still Working, Baboon Wait Small," an appeal to be allowed to carry on her work.
"They have no use giving her this award. She sponsored a war. Her winning this award will make us Liberians vote her out," said John Sren, a 38-year-old security guard at the rally.
"The opposition is likely to be furious. This will seem like an endorsement and make the outcome seem like a foregone conclusion by the international community," said Titi Ajayi, analyst at International Crisis Group.
In Oslo, Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland dismissed suggestions the award to Johnson-Sirleaf might look like meddling in the Liberian vote.
Tubman's CDC party was unwilling to concede any advantage to Johnson-Sirleaf: "(The award) won't make a difference. The people have decided and they will vote her out," Acarous Moses Gray, secretary general of the party, told Reuters.
The election, if it goes smoothly, could pave the way for billions of dollars in mining and oil investment.
Liberia was founded in 1847 by former American slaves, who sought to recreate American society on African soil by building churches and homes modeled on southern plantations.
Johnson-Sirleaf has earned plaudits for reducing Liberia's debt while maintaining stability in the years since the war, but faces criticism at home for delays in rebuilding infrastructure and for failing to root out crime.
The Harvard graduate and former World Bank and Citigroup economist has also taken flak for her early support of accused rebel war criminal Charles Taylor, facing judgment at the Hague, and for going back on a promise to serve only one term.
But analysts said the award was likely to ultimately bolster her chances at the poll, even possibly allowing her to win an absolute majority in the first round and avoid a run-off.
"She may even win outright. At this stage, anybody portraying her like the girl from outside, having more support from donors than domestically, would look weird and envious," said Lydie Boka, head of consultancy StrategiCo.
"But she needs to make sure people in remote areas know about her win, and how it may change their own lives."
Liberia's election commission said on Friday the October 11 election would go ahead as scheduled.
"We are going to go ahead as planned, everything is on course. The Nobel Peace Prize award for the president in no way impacts the running of the election," said Nathan Mulbah, a spokesman for the National Elections Commission.
(Additional reporting by Alphonso Toweh, Kwasi Kpodo, Mark John and Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Andrew Roche)