— But elections observer group raises alarms over violation of electoral law
Official campaign activities for the October 2023 presidential and legislative elections have not started as per the National Elections Commissions’ timetable, but for the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), it has, if developments in the country are anything to go by.
The streets of Monrovia and other parts of the country are already littered with campaign billboards, posters and flyers of President George Weah and Vice President Jewel Howard-Taylor. These posters and flyers bear campaign messages as the President embarks on his quest for a second term — with the “Change for Hope” slogan ushering in his first term in 2017, the latest, “Hope You Can Count On” has overwhelmed Monrovia with the aim of luring Liberians the way of the CDC again.
A political rally hosted by the CDC over the weekend, dubbed “Million-man Rally”, also saw senior government officials, including officers of the Executive Protective Service, tasked with protecting the country’s VIPS, including the President and VP,h donning CDC paraphernalia t-shirts, berets caps and other campaign gears, while holding assault rifles and walking by the President.
But all of these come too early as the NEC stipulated time for campaign activities is more than six months away. And according to many, President Weah and his CDC are using their incumbency power to violate the country’s electoral laws, the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC) said.
The committee, Liberia's largest domestic election observation network with diverse competencies, experiences and expertise in democracy, elections, and governance established since 2010, termed the February 4, 2023 CDC rally as a campaign activity that was a flagrant violation of Section 12 of the National Elections Commission's (NEC) Regulation on the conduct of political parties and coalitions.
“The rally was characterized by wearing T-Shirts and printing banners depicting the picture of the President when the official campaign period outlined in the election timeline has not started,” the group said, adding that the violation undercuts the principle of a "level playing field" required for the conduct of a fair and credible election.
The Carter Center, an international elections observation body, said in 2017 that to ensure a level playing field in the campaign, unfair incumbency advantages should be addressed and the use of state resources in favor of specific candidates should be prohibited. The center sent out the warning after it received complaints about the misuse of state resources by the ruling party and incumbents during that election season, similar concerns that are being raised now.
“In the context of elections, state resources include not only government vehicles and fuel, as well as public space, but also public office. According to good international practice, administrative officials should not use their office to support or show favor to a particular political party,” the group noted.
However, the NEC released a revised timetable for the upcoming elections last month, declaring the campaign period will begin on August 5 and end on October 8. But with six months to campaign activities, the ruling party has jump started the process.
The ECC also frowned on the erection of billboards that displayed the picture of the President in various parts of Monrovia.
Since the rally, which saw mammoth crowds from across Monrovia and its environs, many began raising concerns that the Weah-led government may be using state resources and intimidation to force civil servants into the street and wear partisan gear—in complete breach of guidelines against pre-campaigning.
Amid all of these, the NEC has failed to take any action in keeping with Section 12 of its Regulation. “The failure of the NEC to enforce its Regulation sets a dangerous precedent and undermines its neutrality as an independent Election Management Body (EMB),” the ECC said.
Many believe that the NEC is not being proactive as it was during the last general elections in 2017 when the issue of pre-election campaigning was also visible, but the then chairman, Cllr. Jerome Korkoya, warned political parties against the act — even threatening harsh punishments.
“Whether they were put up by friends of John or movement of somebody, the Commission had given one week’s notice to remove everything,” Korkoya said of flyers, billboards and posters.
He instructed magistrates around the country to collect the names of people found to be in violation. “Political parties holding rally, rally are allowed under the laws but doesn’t require wearing political parties T-Shirt around. People in the habit of printing copy books and spreading it around in the name of helping students must also stop. You don’t need to put your pictures on copy books. The only reason I see people will want to do that is to cheat by putting themselves ahead of the others,” Cllr. Korkoya declared in 2017.
However, nothing has been heard from the NEC and its current leadership under Madam Davidetta Brown Lansanah ahead of the October polls, amid obvious signs of violations by the ruling CDC government.
Meanwhile, as the October polls approach, the opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) has expressed concern that the ruling party would deploy strange and unacceptable tactics to ensure opposition political parties are weakened, bringing about serious challenges to mobilizing support for their candidates.
It is no secret that candidates of the ruling party usually use machinery of their government to gain upper hand, as they control the state media and other state apparatus — using state security agents and others to obstruct and intimidate opposition parties and also deny opponents use of state facilities and destroy their campaign materials. The CPP has therefore called on the international community to be more watchful as the elections draw nearer.