Election Watch: Liberia

Posted on | oktober 12, 2011 | No Comments

Flag Republic of Liberia

On Tuesday, October 11, 2011, Liberians will go to the polls to choose the country’s next president from a pool of 16 aspiring presidential candidates, which includes the incumbent Ms. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. The election comes a few days after President Johnson Sirleaf and another Liberian women’s activist Leymah Gbowee were awarded the Nobel Prize for their activism in promoting peace and gender equality, a move whose timing is being questioned by many.

The stakes are high for this election which is being hailed as a litmus test in the nation’s transitional journey to peace and democracy. Indications suggest that the incumbent will likely win, but this election could also be a referendum on the reign of Ma Ellen (as she is affectionately referred to by many Liberians). Here is what to watch for:

Voter turnout: If indications can be obtained from the controversial referendum poll held on August 23, low voter turnout would hurt the incumbent Ma Johnson Sirleaf and her Unity Party. The results of the referendum poll, however, are potentially suspect, as the ballots had a print error which confused the voters. The referendum on constitutional changes asked voters to choose whether to amend four propositions regarding judge tenure, elections scheduling, presidential candidate requirements, and the electoral system. Following the referendum election results, none of the four proposition amendments obtained the necessary two-thirds of votes required to amend the constitution due to the low voter turnout. The defeat was a blow to the ruling party, which heavily wanted the referendum to pass, and a victory for the main opposition Congress for Democratic Change which boycotted the referendum.

The low voter turnout could be partly explained by lack of information and awareness but also many Liberians did not really think that the referendum was a big deal for them. This sentiment was confirmed by the many Liberians I interacted with on my recent work assignment in the country. In addition, Mother Nature could complicate the matter further if it rains on Tuesday. A lot of people could be forced to stay home instead of voting.

What is on the mind of the voters? Is it peace and stability or kitchen table issues? If peace and stability are what many voters would have on their mind that is good news for the governing Unity Party. Coming from over two decades of a brutal civil conflict, Liberia’s four years of relative peace and stability have brought the country forward a long way, a marker many ordinary Liberians are using to evaluate and judge the importance of Tuesday’s elections.

But if it is kitchen table issues, I see a problem for Ms. Johnson Sirleaf and the Unity Party. Even amidst unemployment, poverty and entrenched corruption, many ordinary Liberians are very happy with the peace and stability the country is enjoying but are very frustrated with the situation on the ground because they have not seen their living conditions improving. It’s important to remember that these conditions are mostly not the fault of the current president considering that she started building the country from ground zero. However, these frustrations are the heart of what the CDC is tapping in their hopes of a big defeat to unseat the Unity Party and Ms Johnson

The Loser’s Reaction. Most importantly, all will depend on whether the loser of the election would accept the results. This is also a problem connected to the fairness of the process. Therefore, the National Elections Commission (NEC) and the UN should up its game in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes made during the Referendum, unnecessary errors which might make the elections questionable. It is beyond my understanding that a ballot paper printed in Denmark with the assistance of UNDP had an error (not a complicated error for that matter).

What is Next? Whoever wins, he/she must start thinking about strategies to translate the electoral gains into meaningful programs of action to improve the living and material conditions of ordinary Liberians. It seems that the primary focus of this election is on security, as it should be—the continuation of peace and stability-but in the long run, I see the reality on the ground as the greatest challenge. This is a reality where the elites (in government and private sectors are indifferent towards the hardships of ordinary people on the ground. A reality of corruption and a reality of unemployment.

AUTHOR: Ndumba Jonnah Kamwanyah
URL: http://foreignpolicyblogs.com/
E-MAIL: Ndumba.Kamwanyah [at] umb.edu`

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