Liberia: NEC Dashes UP’s Hope

....As UP’s fate now hangs in the balance, leaving the Supreme Court to decide if the former ruling party can contest the pending election in Lofa County and 2023 general elections.

The National Elections Commission has reaffirmed its hearing officer’s ruling which bars the opposition Unity Party from fielding a candidate in the upcoming Lofa County senatorial by-election.

The ruling by the NEC Board of Commissioners, to which the former ruling Unity Party and the All Liberian Party have taken an exception to, comes with serious implications for the party and its political leader former Vice President Joseph Boakai who is eying a rematch with President George Weah during 2023 general elections.

The electoral body rulings surround the guarantee of the inviolability of political parties, leaving the Supreme Court to determine whether agreements that seek to contract away constitutional rights are unconstitutional.  The Court is expected to hear arguments on the matter once lawyers for UP and ALP have filed their appeals.

Any ruling from the Court, depending on how it goes, will forever reshape the country’s political landscape — particularly issues that have to do with the legality of political collaborations established by framework documents and beyond, the rights of NEC to enforce agreements between political parties.

The NEC ruling is in response to a complaint filed by the Alternative National Congress and Musa Bility’s faction of the Liberty Party, asking NEC to invoke Section 8.5 (2) of the CPP framework document as a means of rejecting and denying “any application from the ALP and UP to field candidates in their names in any election until the expiry of the 2023 elections, including up to six (6) months thereafter, same being the agreed contractual life of the CPP.”

Agreeing, the electoral body said: “Wherefore and in view of the foregoing, the appeal of the UP/ALP is hereby denied and the decision of the hearing office affirmed. We agree with the hearing officer that the framers of the Constitution, as well as the elections law, did not compel political parties to submit their governing documents to the NEC simply as a mere formality,” the Commissioners said.

“We note that the hearing officer did not err. A notarized framework is valid until proven illegal or invalid.  The law provides that we take evidence before referring a matter to the Supreme Court. We further found that there is no merit in the defendant’s bill of exception to dismiss the complaint.”

The complaint by ANC and Bility’s LP faction came after the UP and the ALP both withdrew from the CPP on allegations that the CPP Framework Document was tampered with by the political leader of the ANC, Alexander Cummings —  an allegation he had denied. 

Attorney Fomba Swaray, the NEC hearing officer, noted due to the constitutional issues raised as it relates to the complaint, NEC was prohibited from proceeding with any action regarding the endorsement of the UP’s candidate for the Lofa County Senatorial by-election until the Supreme Court considers the constitutional questions involved.

He argued that the Constitution governing documents of political parties are not written at the bar of the administrative forum — “hence, questions as to whether a political governing document is wise or unwise, are best directed at the political parties.” 

However, Minister of Justice, Cllr. Musah F. Dean, has previously declared that there can be no restriction on the enjoyment of constitutional rights, except during an emergency declared in accordance with the Constitution.

“The right to freely associate with or refuse to associate with political parties, trade unions, and other organizations, is a fundamental right guaranteed under Article 17 of our Constitution. No contract can inhibit the exercise of this fundamental right,” the Minister said. 

Article 1 of our Constitution guarantees the people the right to freely elect leaders of their choice through free, fair, and democratic elections,” he added. “In the process, political parties are guaranteed the right to field candidates; while individuals may register as independent candidates.”

Lofa County has for the last year and a half been without one of its two senators after the Senator-elect, former Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, faced a hurdle in taking his seat.

His difficulty came when the Supreme Court halted his certification. Samukai received the most votes in the December 8, 2020, special senatorial election.  Of the 11 candidates who vied for the Lofa County senatorial seat, Samukai received 20, 431 votes, followed by independent candidate Cllr. Joseph Jallah with 13,968 votes. He and two co-defendants were convicted for theft of property, criminal conspiracy, misuse of public money, and money laundering over US$1 million and sentenced to two years in prison, and ordered to restore the money.

The Samukai case, came to a crossroads after the Supreme Court revoked the suspension of the two-year jail sentence handed against him and his two deputies for failing collectively failed to comply with the high court’s mandate and judgment to pay 50% of the judgment sum, equal to US$573,828.15, within six months of last year. The Court’s decision forced the Liberian Senate to write NEC to declare a vacancy, prompting the electoral body to issue a notice of by-election for the seat.

Meanwhile, NEC commissioners argued that the appeal by UP and ALP’s seeking to nullify the matter before it was invalid, and as such the Commission, relying on legal standings, particularly the 1986 Constitution of Liberia, has the right to hear any election case before it, gather evidence and refer to the Supreme Court when constitutional issues are raised.

The NEC Commissioners also disclosed that the CPP framework document or agreement remains valid until challenged in a competent court of jurisdiction — noting that Article 79 of the Liberian Constitution requires that a political party file its constitution and rules with the NEC and it must conform to the Liberian Constitution.

“Moreover, Section 8.5 requires political parties forming alliance or collaboration to submit their agreement with terms and conditions aligning with the 1986 Constitution. We agree with the Hearing Officer that the framers of the Constitution and Elections Law did not compel political parties to submit their governing documents to the NEC simply as a mere formality,” the Commissioners said.

However, UP and ALP had argued that they cannot be bound by the CPP Agreement because they did not sign the CPP agreement filed with the NEC, and that same is a product of fraud.

The ANC the Musa Bility LP letter argued that “Section 8.5 (2) of the CPP framework document states that: Constituent Party desiring to withdraw from the CPP shall first exhaust the dispute resolution mechanism stipulated in the framework document.

“If the Constituent Party which has satisfied the dispute resolution mechanism is not satisfied with the outcome, it shall file a resolution to withdraw from the CPP signed and duly executed by two-thirds (2/3) of the membership of the National Executive Committee, it is being understood, however, that a party withdrawing from the alliance prior to the next presidential, legislative and local elections shall not field candidates in its name.”