As electoral officials count the ballots following Liberia’s second postwar election – early returns place Nobel Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s Unity Party in the lead – Dominique Dieudonné (left) reports from Monrovia on a campaign in which civil society groups helped ensure a peaceful poll in a potentially volatile post-conflict society.
The equal distribution of candidates’ posters plastered all over Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, demonstrates how much is riding on the presidential elections (legislative contests for a few senate and house seats up for reelection on the same day are receiving little attention).
Technically, there were 16 presidential candidates, including running mates, for the October 11 poll, plus 99 candidates running for 15 senatorial seats and 665 candidates contesting 73 seats in the House of Representatives. But the real contest is between Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female leader, former minister Winston Tubman and warlord-turned-senator Prince Johnson (Tubman’s vote is likely to get a boost from his running mate , former world soccer Player of the Year George Weah.)
The incumbent’s campaign received a welcome boost from two recent Supreme Court decisions which ruled unconstitutional the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendation that Sirleaf and others not serve in government for 30 years and vacated a constitutional provision requiring 10 years’ residency which was reaffirmed in a referendum earlier this year. Without commenting on whether the ‘10-year’ residency requirement should be strictly interpreted in terms of consecutive years or not, the Chief Justice acknowledged that “the civil war and its devastating impact on the lives of the Liberian people” could not have been foreseen by the framers of the 1986 constitution. Other presidential candidates, Senator Prince Johnson and Charles Brumskine also benefitted from the ruling.
With such a crowded field of legislative candidates, another Supreme Court decision seems to have benefitted them on a technicality. Sirleaf’s Unity Party chairman reportedly filed suit as a citizen against the National Electoral Commission’s decision to count invalid votes the referendum and that candidates must secure an absolute majority to claim victory. The Supreme Court ruled that the NEC should not have included the invalid votes in the final tally, and overturned the ruling requiring an absolute majority. Legislative candidates in this election now only require a simple majority.
Civil society groups have diligently monitored the campaigns and have been quick to denounce any inflammatory rhetoric by candidates or party representatives with ethnic or religious undertones. Newspapers, which tend to be partisan, have also played a more constructive role during the elections by staying above the fray, declining to print provocative statements, and keeping editorials focused on the issues. Community radio stations frequently aired legislative debates which were organized across the country and evidently well-received by local communities.
The Unity Party’s most prominent campaign slogan – Monkey still working, let baboon wait small ya – refers to the primate’s superiority over the baboon representing rival parties. While some find the reference offensive and undignified, the ruling party is unapologetic, saying that the slogan is in jest. But others are not laughing. Critics contend that in a high-stakes and volatile campaign in a fragile state, political leaders should be more attuned to all constituents.
Given the close proximity of Sirleaf’s private residence and party headquarters to the HQ of the rival Congress for Democratic Change, the electoral commission gave clear guidance to the parties on how to control party supporters on Sunday’s final day of campaigning. Nevertheless, late in the evening, as crowds dispersed, CDC partisans eventually crossed paths with rival Sirleaf supporters close to her residence while she was home. Immediately, special units from the Liberian National Police, including the Emergency Response Unit which has been accused of using excessive force, were deployed in full riot gear alongside troops from the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) around Sirleaf’s residence to maintain crowd control. Traffic was at a standstill for several hours until the crowds had been dispersed without incident. These tense moments could have been avoided with better communication.
A level-playing field?
The legislature’s incumbent parties and the ruling Unity Party have been accused of using government funds for campaigning activities. A few instances are outlined in the Carter Center’s pre-election statement which cites the Liberia Democracy Institute’s research on such abuses (the institute is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy).
Across the capital, the Unity Party’s green shirts were evident in all rallies that seem to attract hundreds in support of Ma Ellen as she is affectionately called. None of the competing political parties on the other hand had enough resources to create identifying colors. Their supporters just wore white shirts with their candidates’ pictures which had the effect of one party blending into each other.
With very few undecided voters, it is unclear what impact if any President Sirleaf’s Nobel Peace Prize will have on the election result. It is clearly irritating her critics who used the award as yet another example of outsiders meddling in Liberia’s internal politics. Sirleaf’s only mention of the prize in response to journalists’ questions on her nomination was to cite it as a source of pride for all Liberians, especially the country’s women.
In an address to the nation last week, Sirleaf reiterated her commitment to non-violent, free, and fair elections. She also called on UNMIL to provide additional support to the Liberian National Police, if needed, to ensure a smooth process on Election Day. Given the continued instability in western Côte d’Ivoire which borders Liberia, the president requested and received additional security from ECOWAS. Yet Liberian voters have shown that they shared her commitment and have participated peacefully at all stages of an electoral process which began with voters’ registration, followed by a complex referendum at the height of the rainy season in a country with little reliable infrastructure in the most remote regions.
Election day was declared a national holiday which hopefully translated into more voters at the polls. The crucial test will be over coming weeks before the first round’s results are announced by the electoral commission and during any campaigns for the second round. It will be incumbent on leaders from all political parties, civil society groups, and the media to end the electoral process on a positive note which builds on Liberians’ accomplishments over the last six years.