Former football star George Weah, 51, and Vice-President Joseph Boakai, 73, held commanding leads in provisional presidential election results announced yesterday in Liberia.
Weah, a former world, African and European footballer of the year, received 39.2% of almost 1.2 million ballots cast in almost three-quarters of polling places, leading Boakai who had 29.6% of the vote, the commission said.
Charles Brumskine, a lawyer, was running third with 9.3 percent of the vote.
Weah became the first non-European to win the European player of the year award in 1995, the same year he picked up the African and World player of the year awards.
Other critics accuse Weah's Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) of having too vague a political platform, and have challenged his long absences from the senate since being elected in a race he won over Sirleaf's son.
Weah, who is topping most of the country's 15 counties in the first announcement of the National Elections Commission, is closely being followed by Vice President Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party.
"The Liberian people deserve to know what was done", Brumskine said.
Worldwide election observers said they had not identified any major problems with Tuesday's voting.
Johnson Sirleaf's almost 12 years in office have seen the country's postwar peace consolidated, although Liberians complain about poor public services and widespread corruption.
The Liberian electoral law requires the eventual victor to have at least 50 per cent of votes cast which none of the candidates will be able to meet in this round of elections. "I thank them for participating in this process", she said.
Surrounded by cheering supporters after casting his vote on Tuesday, Weah declared his "love for this country will make me a good president".
Standing nearby, a man in his late 50s, Cyrus S. Mulbah, had a different view.