Africa's first and only female president handily won re-election Thursday with 90.2 percent of the vote, but her victory has been rendered hollow and her government may struggle to prove its legitimacy because the opposition boycotted the poll.
Hours before the results were announced in an election that was supposed to solidify Liberia's shaky peace, opposition leader Winston Tubman said he would not accept the outcome of this week's presidential runoff.
With nearly nine-tenths of precincts reporting, National Election Commission chair Elizabeth Nelson announced late Thursday that Sirleaf had received 513,320 votes out of 565,391 tallied. Only 52,071 ballots, or 9.2 percent, had been cast for Tubman, a former United Nations diplomat who, like Sirleaf, was educated at Harvard University.
Last week, Tubman called on his supporters to boycott Tuesday's presidential runoff, and many polling stations closed early due to the dismal turnout. By early morning, many had no lines outside. By afternoon, poll workers were seen dozing, some laying their heads on tables next to near-empty ballot boxes.
Turnout hovered around 33 percent of registered voters, not even half of the 71 percent who turned out for the election's first round.
"Our decision before the runoff is that we would not accept the results," Tubman told The Associated Press by telephone from Monrovia, Liberia's sea-facing capital of pockmarked buildings that still bear the scars of the horrific 14-year civil war that only ended in 2003.
"We're getting pressure from everywhere including the White House to partake in something we know is stacked against us," Tubman said. "The international community cannot see our case, and we wanted to bring this to their attention ... They should know we're not just making trouble. I'm not a trouble maker. They should not ignore us. This was a way that our voice was heard."
He has argued that the electoral process was biased in his opponent's favor and that his party had collected evidence of ballot stuffing and of improperly filled-in tally sheets. International observers said that there was no evidence of fraud and on Thursday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that the United States was "disappointed" by the opposition's withdrawal.
The Atlanta-based Carter Center headed by former President Jimmy Carter said the boycott had marred the vote.
"The opposition's decision to boycott the runoff was based on their assertion that the overall election was significantly flawed. These claims remain unsubstantiated," the group said in a statement. "(The) boycott essentially denied the Liberian people a genuine choice within a competitive electoral process."
Most analysts and country experts believe that Tubman would have lost Tuesday's election if he had participated. His Congress for Democratic Change party got around 33 percent of the vote in the first round last month, compared to around 44 percent for Sirleaf. She later won the endorsement of the third-place finisher, who had just over 11 percent.
"If you look at the figures, you can see that Tubman (was) almost certainly going to lose. He is 12, 13 points down in the polls," said Stephen Ellis, the author of a history of the Liberian civil war and researcher at the African Studies Center Leiden in the Netherlands.
"It's an obvious calculation. He withholds legitimacy from the government," Ellis said. "If it was felt by a large part of population to not be legitimate, in a place like Liberia, with its history, it becomes quite worrying."
Those who did make a point of going out to vote were overwhelmingly in support of Sirleaf, who was first elected in 2005 and was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Besides the boycott, some citizens also stayed away due to the fear of violence.
On the eve of the vote, Tubman's supporters clashed with police on the streets outside the opposition's headquarters, and at least two people were killed after security forces opened fire with live bullets. That same night, the government shut down several opposition radio stations, a move that was criticized by rights groups.
Sirleaf has vowed an investigation, but the police-led violence has added another layer of negativity to a vote that was meant to cement peace.
The country's civil war erupted in 1989 and continued on and off until 2003. As many as a quarter-of-a-million people were killed and the country was destroyed. Rebel soldiers played soccer with human skulls. They created forms of torture unheard of before, like slicing open the stomachs of pregnant women, taking bets on the sex of the unborn child.
The nation's fragile peace has been mostly held together by the presence of thousands of United Nations peacekeepers still stationed in Liberia eight years after the war.
The police's excessive use of force on Monday indicates how far the country still has to go in terms of security sector reform, before a durable peace can be declared, said Corinne Dufka, a Washington-based researcher for Human Rights Watch who is an expert on Liberia.
Lawrence Randall, the executive director of the Liberia Media Center said that the opposition's rhetoric is irresponsible.
"They are trying to stir up tension. And in my opinion it's very, very unnecessary _ we need to proceed in a line of peace. We can't keep making statements that instigate," said Randall. "But I think in general people are convinced," he added, "that peace is paramount."
Callimachi contributed to this report from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed from Washington.