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Liberian Elections — A Shadow of Hope

Why is Liberia’s recent successful election only the beginning of what the country needs to accomplish?

October 25, 2005

Why is Liberia's recent successful election only the beginning of what the country needs to accomplish?

Amid high hopes of laying to rest the country’s 14-year civil war, Liberians turned out in large numbers for elections on October 11, 2005. It was the first election since the 1997 election, which returned warlord Charles Taylor to power.

Out of a population of 3.5 million, 1.35 million people registered to vote and 75% braved a climate that alternates between torrential rain and a merciless heat. On election day, umbrellas were used — but only to provide some relief from the glaring sun.

Citizens of the small West African nation started queuing in front of polling stations before dawn, while some residents from the more remote regions walked for hours on muddy roads to cast their ballots.

The election will usher in a transition from a power-sharing arrangement instituted under a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) signed in 2003 to a democratically elected government that will determine the direction of the country for the next six years.

It is hoped that the election will put an end to political and military confrontations that have ravaged Liberia for decades.

Patrick M’bayo, president of the University of Liberia Students Union (ULSU), anticipates a more peaceful future in Liberia after the election. “I envision a Liberia that will be quite different from what we’ve seen in the past. I hope to see a government that will create the conditions for a country free of injustices — where the equitable distribution of resources will be the hallmark of all economic policies,” he said, attributing much of Liberia’s present woes to past social injustices committed against its people.

Roughly 700 legislative and 22 presidential candidates, including Harvard-educated lawyers, former warlords and an ex-world footballer of the year, stood for office.

With all of the votes now counted, the National Elections Commission (NEC), the UN-supported body charged with organizing the event, has announced a run-off scheduled for November 8 between the two leading contenders for the Executive Mansion in Monrovia — George Weah, a former football star who is immensely popular among Liberian youth, and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official and veteran politician.

Organizing the elections posed unique challenges in this war-ravaged country, which has seen neither running water nor electricity in 15 years. Furthermore, no election register survived from previous elections, illiteracy stands at 80%, roads are either non-existent or in poor condition and some areas are inaccessible by vehicles entirely.

In addition, significant parts of the population are either internally displaced or members of refugee and Diaspora communities abroad.

To address these difficulties, the UN and the National Elections Commission had to find some creative solutions — and they had to find them quickly. A completely new register of voters had to be established and Liberians issued with registration cards.

Registration centers were opened throughout the country, including internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, for citizens to present themselves. IDPs registering in camps had the option of registering to vote either for the district in which their camp was located or their home county — 71% percent chose the latter option.

Since many voters had either never obtained or lost their birth certificates and passport, people presenting themselves at polling stations were assumed to be Liberian and over the age of 18.

Only if the registering official had doubts concerning a person’s eligibility would they be required to return with identification or demonstrate their qualification through the testimony of two witnesses who had to be registered themselves.

Hands were marked with indelible ink to prevent double registrations.

In addition, in the run-up to the elections, UN helicopters flew ballot slips and ballot boxes to remote polling stations which were otherwise inaccessible. After polls closed, ballots were manually counted long into the night, often relying on lanterns and candlelight.

With only two previous elections in the past 20 years, many Liberians had little familiarity with the process of casting one’s vote.

A program of voter education was therefore initiated by the NEC and the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) in cooperation with a range of international non-governmental agencies (NGO).

For instance, in the lead-up to the elections, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) provided pre-election briefings for its 400 staff members in the country, who in turn provided information workshops for partner community-based organizations and former combatants.

Based on information obtained from the national election authorities, teams also held information sessions on the election process, including awareness about the importance of voter registration and voting.

Basic points of voter education included addressing questions on who can vote, how to vote and the political system. For example, training manuals included short introductions to the nature of political parties noting a political party “as an organization that tries to gain political power.”

Among the “Dos and Don’ts of Elections,” manuals called on voters to “bring your Voter Registration Card” and “come early.” Similarly, they urged voters not to attempt to “vote more than once” or “stir up unrest and rebellion after declaration of results.”

In addition to the massive educational efforts — radio, printed materials, theatre and signage — there was a lot of face-to-face interaction and visual aids, such as voter education flipcharts and handbooks to enhance an adequate understanding and retention of the information.

The process of organizing the elections and drawing up the ballot has not, however, been without controversy. The revised 1985 constitution contained several provisions that were a source of friction.

For example, a residency clause stated that candidates had to live in Liberia for at least ten years prior to the elections. Since most candidates of importance had only recently returned to the country, this clause was taken to require solely ten non-consecutive years in the country over the course of the candidates’ lives.

Similarly, calls for striking George Weah — who also holds French nationality — from the ballot on the grounds of a Liberian prohibition against dual citizenship were dismissed by the NEC due to “insufficient evidence.”

However, many national and international observers attribute the decision to the political necessity of maintaining one of the most popular presidential candidates in the race instead.

Lastly, the constitution required presidential candidates to declare at least 25,000 Liberian dollars in assets, a fortune in 1985 when the Liberian dollar maintained parity with the greenback. At today’s exchange rate, it equals roughly $500 — still a considerable sum in a country were average monthly salaries are around $20.

Nevertheless, international observers draw a positive conclusion. John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group (ICG) sees the election as “a bottom-up success story.”

He states, “Liberian civil society is in large part responsible for this initial electoral victory. The press was aggressive, women’s groups were vocal — and other civic organizations laid the foundation for what happened on October 11. The challenges are daunting facing the eventual winner of the run-off, but the country has definitely turned a significant corner as a result of this vote.”

A re-emerging free national press contributed greatly to transparency in the electoral process.

It engaged in a lively debate of candidates and parties, covering contraventions of the elections law and going as far as to publish the listing of assets which candidates for the first time in Liberian history had to present, a thing unthinkable under previous regimes.

Women were also making their voices heard for the first time — they constituted 50% of registered voters and only 13% of electoral candidates.

Moreover, most agree that UNMIL was crucial to the elections’ success in providing an enabling environment and guaranteeing security through its 15,000 peacekeepers, currently the largest UN peace-keeping contingent in the world.

In addition, the UN provided critical expertise as well as logistical and financial support. A total of $18 million of UN funding went towards organizing the elections.

Reflecting the unique challenges of arranging the event for a dispersed population in a war-ravaged country, the exercise was significantly more costly in Liberia than elsewhere. Where elections cost approximately $3 per eligible voter to arrange in developed countries, they cost $13 in Liberia due to the challenges outlined above.

For many Liberians, the election and subsequent inauguration of a ‘”people-centered” government in January 2006 are the only shadows of hope they are hanging onto. Liberia’s huge numbers of refugees and internally displaced people may also have some cause for optimism.

All the same, the tasks that lie in store for the next president are enormous.

Amongst other things, rampant corruption — which has been a major stumbling block to tackling poverty — has to be tackled, a policy of reconciliation instituted and basic social services restored.

As a result of the civil war, major concessions — such as iron ore and logging — that provided jobs for the country’s population no longer exist. The public sector has become the single-largest employer and the country faces economic stagnation.

International observers agree that a continued commitment of the international community and UN peacekeeping troops beyond the election will be key to ensuring the country’s stability.

Nicky Smith, head of the International Rescue Committee in Liberia notes that “A shift in government is not enough — Liberia will need financial support for at least another 10-15 years. It is also important that careful systems are put in place so that the country’s natural resources, such as diamonds and timber, are not exploited by the few and that the people can actually benefit from Liberia’s rich natural wealth.”