Stress-testing Liberia’s democratic resilience

The Supreme Court’s decision to indefinitely postpone the presidential runoff is politically risky.

Over 1.6 million Liberians voted in twin parliamentary and presidential elections on 10 October, registering a record participation rate of 75.2%. Ten days later, Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC) announced that former footballer George Weah’s Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) had scored 38.4% and outgoing vice president and ruling Unity Party (UP) standard bearer Joseph Boakai won 28.8% of the vote. Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP) came third with 9.6% of votes cast.

With no presidential candidate polling the required 50+1% to prevent a runoff, the NEC scheduled the second round of voting for 7 November. However, it did so while investigating allegations of fraud and irregularity filed by the LP, triggering an avoidable political, legal and potentially constitutional crisis.

After filing his complaint, Brumskine – who never passed round one in three previous runs for president – submitted a writ urging the Supreme Court to prohibit the runoff elections until his complaint was addressed. The court ruled in his favour.

Except for Weah, the other candidates excelled in their counties of origin and tanked nationally

There is scant independent evidence pointing to planned and systematic fraud with intent to rig the elections. The ballot-box stuffing and pre-filled ballot papers Brumskine cites as evidence of fraud allegedly occurred mainly in Grand Gedeh County which Weah won with 75% of the votes; and Nimba County which was carried by Prince Johnson with 53.5% of the votes. These are their strongholds, which they have consistently won in presidential voting first rounds since 2005, just as Brumskine has always done in his fief, Grand Bassa County.

The broader electoral map, however, shows that Weah won 11 of Liberia’s 15 counties; Boakai won two; and Brumskine and Johnson carried only their home Grand Bassa and Nimba counties respectively. Except for Weah, all the other top presidential candidates excelled in their counties of origin and tanked nationally.

The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Brumskine’s request to postpone the runoff, on two grounds. It firstly underscored the importance of resolving disputes from the previous round of voting and ascertaining the validity of every vote cast before proceeding to the runoff. Secondly, it based its decision on respect for due process as enshrined in the Liberian constitution.

While both grounds provide a legal basis to uphold Brumskine’s writ of prohibition, the court’s decision has nonetheless created a political crisis that now needs to be managed. Politically, it is doubtful whether the irregularities that Brumskine alleges influenced the outcome to such an extent that it would invalidate the first round of voting altogether.

From his jail in England, Charles Taylor has pledged his support to Weah’s CDC alliance

As post-electoral contestation has moved from the public square into the courtrooms, political splits have emerged pitting first-round winners and losers against each other – with Weah and Boakai on opposing sides of the divide. Of the first-round presidential candidates, Weah and his supporter Johnson appear ready to move on with runoff elections. Meanwhile Brumskine and three other candidates, including Boakai, support delaying the runoff until all first-round grievances are resolved. This sets Liberians up for an intractable litigious process, since parties have the right to appeal the NEC’s decisions before the Supreme Court.

The alignment on both sides of the divide brings to the surface potentially incendiary tropes of identity and class inequality. The Weah side draws much of its support from the urban youth. They often look to his stellar international football career and subsequent ambassadorial and senatorial performance as credentials qualifying him to be president.

Having lost to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the 2005 runoff, and again as vice-presidential running mate to Winston Tubman in 2011, his supporters would be implacable should their candidate be denied his chance at the presidency in the chambers of a courtroom. This is especially given the CDC’s strong showing in the legislature, where it won 21 of the 73 seats to emerge as the biggest party bloc in the legislature.

However, his alignment with ghosts from Liberia’s civil war past – including Prince Johnson and Jewel Taylor (former president Charles Taylor’s ex-wife and Weah’s running mate) – continues to raise questions about his political relationships. From his jail in Durham in the UK, Taylor has pledged his support to the CDC alliance, of which his National Patriotic Party is a member.

It’s doubtful whether the irregularities alleged by Brumskine would invalidate the first round of voting

On the opposing side is Boakai who, by aligning himself with Brumskine – a corporate attorney – in challenging the integrity of the elections, joins an elite group that includes two successful businessmen – Alexander Cummings (Alternative National Congress) and Benoni Urey (All Liberian Party). This alliance, dubbed ‘bedfellows of political convenience’ by Rodney Sieh, editor of Liberia’s leading newspaper FrontPage Africa, remains unclear as to its way forward.

However the group is easily caricatured as being out of touch with the realities of everyday Liberians in a country where stark income inequalities define social position and, hence, political domination. Beyond their elitism, they evoke popular memories of how identity and lineage provided the basis for socio-political and economic domination before and after Samuel Doe’s 1980 military coup.

As the post-electoral battle lines crystallise, it is important to pay attention to changing dynamics between political leaders and their supporters. The degree of control that political leaders have over their supporters cannot be overstated, especially when perceptions are shaped by complex legal decisions.

Public communication as part of a broader crisis-management strategy is vital in defusing tensions and supporting Liberia’s nascent democratic institutions as they navigate this period of stress-testing. Communication plans developed during the Ebola crisis provide a template for informing Liberians about how the post-election crisis will be resolved.

This is important for rebuilding confidence in the NEC and the voting process upon which the credibility of Liberia’s budding democracy rests. A relapse into violence, though possible, would be too high a price to pay for the deferment of crisis management.

Fonteh Akum, Senior Researcher, Peace and Security Research Programme, ISS Pretoria

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