Liberia’s stress test for democracy

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The recent presidential and legislative elections in Liberia and the series of court challenges that preceded it, certainly tested the country’s fragile institutions. In the end, the courts, the National Elections Board, and the candidates themselves all seem to have proved their ability to withstand pressure. It was with relief and a new confidence in their constitution and their institutions that Liberians inaugurated their new president, George Weah, at the end of January.

The October 2017 election, Liberia’s third since the 2003 peace agreement and the first to be conducted without the support of a large United Nations Peace-keeping force, was successful in peacefully and democratically transferring power from one party to another. This was the first time since 1884 that such a transition had occurred. Although effectively a single party state from 1878 to 1980, Liberian elections in the past were hotly contested and internal competition within the ruling True Whig Party was fierce. As the oldest independent republic on the continent, no one could claim that Liberians were unfamiliar with representative democracy or with the process of elections. The post-war period (2003 through the present) has seen over twenty different candidates run for president in each of the past three elections. Although the present constitution was the result of interference and manipulation by military leaders in the 1980’s, it provides the basic structure for an independent judiciary and the separation of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  As documented by Liberian media scholar Carl Patrick Burrowes in his book, Power and Press Freedom in Liberia, 1830-1970, there is a long history of a vibrant and diverse press and professional standards of journalism, although sometimes operating under extreme pressure from the central government. No one needs to instruct Liberians on how democratic governance is supposed to operate; the question since the return to civilian rule has been how quickly their fragmented institutions could be rebuilt.

What is to be learned from the performance of Liberian democratic institutions in this, their third post-conflict stress test? The record is mixed, but overall, there is much to be hopeful about for the future. In the first round which took place on October 10, 2017, Liberians were presented with a field of twenty candidates, of which only three had a real chance of success. The sitting Vice President, Joseph Bokai, represented the incumbent Unity Party, led for the last twelve years by retiring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. George Weah, a former World Soccer Player of the Year, and leader of Congress for Democratic Change, and lawyer Charles Brumskine, of the Liberty Party were both perennial challengers who had run in 2005 and 2011. A long list of other candidates, some familiar names and others new to politics, represented small parties or particular interest groups.  As in the two previous elections, no candidate received a majority of the votes, leading to a run-off between the top two candidates (Bokai and Weah). Demonstrating their commitment to the process, seventy-five percent of eligible citizens turned out to vote in the first round.

Although international observers from the African Union and other bodies had judged the election to be fairly and transparently conducted, the third place finisher, Brumskine, challenged the results to the Supreme Court. Brumskine was joined in this challenge by Bokai, who had come in second despite being the “quasi-incumbent” from the ruling party. Both questioned the long wait times at some polling stations and the use of pre-printed ballots as “demonstration” tools. The second and third-place candidates appealed to the National Elections Commission, and when their complaint was rejected, the matter when to the Supreme Court. The run-off, which should have been held on November 7, was postponed while the court investigated. On December 7, the court ruled that while there had been irregularities, there was no evidence of widespread fraud, although they directed the National Elections Commission to “clean” the voter rolls to avoid duplicate registrations. The new date for the run-off was set for December 26, an inconvenient choice in a country where Christmas is widely celebrated.

Western political scientists have tended to see African courts as mistrusted by their citizens and too much under the sway of incumbents to be much use in opposing an entrenched regime. In this instance, the representative of the incumbent party, Bokai, joined the suit when he received fewer votes in the first round than he was expecting; there is some evidence that this may have cost him support in the second round, since most Liberians were dismayed that the run-off was delayed. Bokai was also undermined by his association with outgoing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. He had served as her vice president for at least 12 years. To top it, Sirleaf was openly campaigning for Weah. The National Elections Commission, the Supreme Court, and the contesting parties all behaved according to their constitutional requirements. Although the courts, at all levels, are still seen as corrupt and too easily swayed by a powerful executive, in this case they were viewed as having upheld the fundamental will of the people as expressed in the first-round ballot.  The run off was conducted peacefully on December 26 last year with a respectable turnout of 55.8%. Shortly after the result was announced, on New Year’s Day, the two men met for a courtesy visit at Boakai’s home, pledging to work together for the good of the country.

There are many challenges ahead for the new administration, but the courts, the press, and the citizenry at large can all be proud of the demonstrated health of their political institutions. We can only hope that their American counter-parts will hold up as well.

Further Reading

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