Working against the grain: Can Liberia avoid violence in the upcoming elections?

photo © Lisa Krantz

Tomorrow, Liberia will hold an election marking its first post-war handover of power.

Tomorrow, Liberia will hold an election marking its first post-war handover of power. Cited by political analysts as ‘highly unpredictable’, the ballot will reshape Liberia’s political landscape and may have an impact on peace and security, governance, development and economic growth.

With 20 presidential candidates, including fresh political entrants, anything is possible. At the September UN General Assembly, outgoing Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said the polls will signal the ‘irreversible course’ that the country has embarked upon to consolidate its young, post-conflict democracy. As elections approach, will Liberia be able to keep its peace under a new government?

The country was battered by two civil wars 1989-1996 and again in 1999-2003 that claimed the lives of 250,000 Liberians, and experienced an Ebola pandemic (2014-2015) that killed another 4,800 people. The run up to the latest vote has been primarily peaceful as the West African state has engaged in efforts to prevent a repeat of electoral violence of 2011. A Catholic Relief Services report states that 61% of Liberians are convinced that election disputes could reignite violent conflict. Such fears are not without reason, given what happened in Kenya during the August 2017 elections. Violence and protests broke out when President Uhuru Kenyatta was announced the winner, leaving at least 24 people dead. The results have since been annulled following a ruling by the Supreme Court, which ordered a rerun.

President Johnson Sirleaf will leave office in 2018 after serving two six year terms (a constitutional limit) as Africa’s first, and so far only, elected female Head of State. She was elected in 2005 and re-elected in 2011. The upcoming elections present an opportunity to advance women’s political leadership. There are 783 candidates running for 73 seats, elected by the first past the post method, in the House of Representatives. Despite having a female president for 12 years and accounting for more than half of the country’s population, women remain largely under-represented in decision-making and governance processes. Currently they comprise a mere 11% of members of parliament compared to the 23.9% average in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the 20 candidates contesting the presidency, only one is female: MacDella Cooper, a philanthropist and former fashion model who is considered to be a newcomer on the political scene.

On a positive note, efforts are underway to ensure that political parties adhere to Section 4.5 of Liberia’s New Election law, which has introduced stricter quotas: it calls for no less than 30% representation of each gender on the lists of candidates submitted by political parties, a practice pioneered by Rwanda.

The presidential race is quite competitive. The two front runners are Joseph Boakai of the ruling Unity Party and George Weah, leader of the opposition Coalition for Democratic Change. Boakai is the current vice president and is generally liked because of his clean image. However he also carries the stain (allegations of corruption, lack of gender equality) of the current government and many of his opponents argue that he will simply be continuing Sirleaf’s legacy. Weah is a renowned 1990s football star turned politician; he was appointed as a Peace Ambassador by the president and is also the chairman of the National Reconciliation Committee. Weah ran unsuccessfully for president in 2005 and for vice president in 2011. His glittering football career makes him popular with the youth (18-35), who make up 60% of the voting populace. His candidate for vice president is Jewel Howard Taylor, ex-wife of Charles Taylor- former president convicted for war crimes by the Hague- who maintains a broad support base.

There are concerns over budget gaps and institutional weaknesses that could prevent the election commission and Liberian National Police from guaranteeing adequate election administration (such as functioning election polls and guaranteeing enough observers at each voting station), and security. Also, any technical errors or delays by the National Election Commission (NEC), any real or perceived fraud, and a close race might encourage candidates to mobilise their supporters and challenge the election result. In an address to the NEC last month, President Johnson Sirleaf said ‘We know that the Commission will face challenges, mainly legal difficulties.’

Tensions between political candidates and their supporters escalated after the enforcement of a national Code of Conduct, Section 5.2 of which requires ministers who want to run for office to step down at least two years prior to election-day. The Code further stipulates that presidential appointees with tenure positions are required to resign three years prior to national elections. This rule was designed to prevent the use of state resources to fund campaigns.

The election process has been calm and peaceful thus far, but the risk of violence still looms in the background. International observers can aid with prevention and detecting deficiencies that can lead to violence, however the responsibility for peaceful elections ultimately lies with Liberian politicians and institutions. Although the process is unlikely to be perfect, Liberia is on its way to a historic election.

9 Oct 2017