2011 Elections Will Determine Liberia’s Political Maturity

2011 Elections Will Determine Liberia’s Political Maturity

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Ed.Note: On October 25th, Liberia's National Elections Commission (NEC) declared that the presidential runoff election between Unity Party incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Congress for Democratic Change opposition candidate Winston Tubman will be held on November 8th.

I came back to Liberia to vote in our general and presidential elections for the first time in my life, and discovered a politically charged milieu.

Every Liberian is talking politics these days, from the unlettered market woman who sells pepper and onions along the road-side, to the university student accustomed to political debates in our traditional palava huts.

We can boast of being the oldest African republic, but it has taken us nearly 164 years to evolve from a one-party state controlled by the True Whig Party—dominated by descendants of the nation’s settler class—to a country boasting 16 presidential candidates contesting one seat, 99 senatorial candidates contesting 15 seats, and 793 candidates contesting 73 seats in the House of Representatives alone. One could argue, based on these statistics, that Liberia is even more democratic than nations that profess to have a monopoly on this form of government.

Young people under the age of 30 have become the face of a shifting political landscape. They comprise the largest percentage of the voting population and they have not been deterred from voting for candidates who represent the change they want to see.

Even Liberians in the Diaspora, who could not vote because the country does not have the capacity to facilitate absentee ballots at this time, have been eagerly participating in the democratic process through social networking sites, listservs, and online chat rooms. They seem just as staunch in their opinions as their home-based brethren.

We have certainly come a long way since 2005 when our first post-war elections were held and Liberians voted blindly based on name recognition alone.

At the time, it was virgin territory, and George Weah—the football legend turned politician—had galvanized a movement of young people who wanted to see change, thereby throwing their support to his party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Just running on the CDC ticket alone guaranteed a political neophyte a coveted place in Liberia’s 52nd National Legislature. Six years later, the electorate is more sober, more contemplative. They still want change, but they have been more calculating in choosing who is likely to deliver that change.

As a result, there have been a number of surprises along the way.

First, the anticipated August 23 National Referendum, which would have set the benchmarks for the October 2011 elections, was for the most part resoundingly rejected. Out of the four propositions voted on—1.) changing the date of general and presidential elections to the second November in every election year; 2.) allowing Legislative races to be determined by a simple majority rather than an absolute majority; 3.) increasing the retirement age of judges to 75; and 4.) decreasing the 10-year residency clause for presidential aspirants to five years—only the simple majority proposition was upheld. Many Liberians voted with their absence on Referendum Day. Others voted with their feet by overwhelmingly rejecting three of the four propositions. When the 10-year residency clause threatened to disqualify a number of the leading contenders in the presidential race—including frontrunners Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Unity Party), Winston Tubman (Congress for Democratic Change), and Charles Brumskine (Liberty Party)—it was eventually referred to the Supreme Court, which decided to enforce it in 2017.

Second, many junior senators who anticipated winning a second term have been ousted. In the past six years, it has become clear to the electorate how much power and influence the Legislature wields. The Liberian electorate has realized that members of the Legislature who delay the passage of development oriented policies such as the Civil Service Code of Conduct, or slash the national budget for much needed social services such as education and health while increasing their salaries, must go.

Besides the reconfiguration of the Legislature, a number of other unanticipated events happened. Rather prematurely, a number of opposition candidates, most notably opposition candidate Winston Tubman, pulled out of the presidential elections a few days before the final results were announced, alleging fraud by the National Elections Commission (NEC). Now, Tubman is reneging on the boycott, after receiving news that Liveria's chief of elections, James Fromayan, has resigned from his post under pressure.  A run-off is now inevitable between incumbent Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Tubman, who surprisingly captured the CDC’s endorsement for the front-man position after a coalition was formed, relegating George Weah to the VP position. Some believe that this is why CDC was not able to clinch the victory this time around. Just as Weah’s presidential endorsement proved short-lived, the anticipation of a first round victory for the incumbent, the first female elected head of state of Africa and a recently announced Nobel laureate, has proved elusive.

The biggest surprise of all has been the emergence of an unlikely candidate who placed third in the first round of voting in the presidential race, trailing Tubman by double digits. Prince Johnson, a warlord turned born again Christian who won a senatorial seat in Nimba County in 2005, is now referring to himself as the “kingmaker”—the person whose endorsement could make or break the candidacy of Johnson Sirleaf or her staunchest opponent, Tubman.

In a conversation with one of the most respected newspaper publishers in Liberia, I discussed Prince Johnson as the “X” factor in the presidential race. The publisher was concerned that Nimbaiains were voting along ethnic lines because they went overwhelmingly for Johnson in the first round. I believe this is the argument most people use to simplify how Africans chose their leaders. If someone barges into my home, and threatens to kill and brutalize my family, and someone else I know through loose affiliations enters and saves my family from annihilation, I too would pledge my loyal support to this person. This is no different from leaders in the Global North who champion particular causes and win votes from constituents who support the same causes. This is the same scenario with Nimbaiains and Prince Johnson. When former President Samuel K. Doe launched reprisals against the Gio and Mano ethnic groups in Nimba County during the peak of Liberia’s civil crisis, Johnson was their only defender. Now, he is in a position to determine who becomes Liberia’s next head of state.

Based on a series of geo-political factors, including the Arab Spring protests and regional examples of strong men like Laurent Gbagbo of the Ivory Coast being politically disgraced, Liberians have sobered up to the idea that participation in the political process can bring massive dividends. The number of people who stood out in the torrential rains to cast their ballot on October 11 alone is an indication that this election is a high stakes duel, with the winner inheriting a politically engaged electorate who will not hold them on a pedestal, but will be watching them under a microscope.

The run-off date for Liberia’s presidential elections was recently announced for November 8th.  How we handle the run-off, just like how we govern Liberia in the next six years, will determine whether or not we can call ourselves a post-conflict success story or even a champion of democracy.

Born in Monrovia, Liberia, Robtel Neajai Pailey is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Development Studies at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), as a Mo Ibrahim Foundation Scholar. An activist and published writer, Pailey can be reached on rpailey@yahoo.com