By Robin Dopoe, Jr. and Hannah N. Geterminah
The Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC), a conglomerate of eight prominent Liberian civil society organizations, has pledged its support to the Government of Liberia’s called to abolish by-elections.
The unprecedented pledge of support by the ECC to the government comes at a time when there is a huge public outcry over the government’s intent to cancel by-elections. Up to now, the ECC has been very critical of the way elections have been handled in the country, since the 2017 elections.
According to the ECC, which is a non-partisan network of civil society organizations that reports on elections issues, the cancellation of by-elections will erase the question of legitimacy because of its low turn-out and unnecessary electoral expenses.
Malcolm Joseph, the executive director of the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building and member of the ECC, told journalists yesterday that ECC’s support for President George Manneh Weah’s proposal to cancel by-elections is the outcome of stakeholders’ engagement with all political actors in the entire country.
Mr. Joseph further explained that in all of the 15 counties, the ECC gathered the views of women, traditional and religious leaders, youth groups as well as people living with disabilities, who all support the abolishing of by-elections on their perspective regarding the electoral reform process.
“In the event of a vacancy in the legislature caused by death, resignation, expulsion, or otherwise, the presiding officer shall within thirty (30) days notify the Elections Commission and the political party on whose ticket the person won hereof.
“Said political party shall not later than 90days hold a convention, overseen by NEC and observed by election observers, to nominate another candidate to complete the term of the person who died, resigned or was expelled until the next election time outlined in the Constitution,” Mr Joseph continued. “Also, to avoid issues with Independent candidates, all candidates for the Senate and House of Representatives shall contest on the tickets of registered political parties.”
The constitution prescribes that whenever there are vacancies in the legislature, the National Elections Commission should be notified within 30 days to hold a by-election.
But the government wants an end to such clause and have it replaced by appointments.
The government’s call for the cancellation of by-elections, an issue that has been the bane of President George Weah’s presidency for the past ten months, was contained in a communication to the 54th Legislature to amend some provisions of the 1986 Constitution.
President Weah communication suggested that in the event of death, resignation or expulsions of a lawmaker, the position shall be filled by appointment of a “duly elected County Council” within 90 days from the time the notice of vacancy is announced to the council by the presiding officer of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
The duly elected County Council, according to the President, shall be charged with the responsibility of formulating the guidelines by which the vacancy can be filled.
While the government canvasses for support for its plan to cancel by-elections, critics against the move argued that it would circumvent the constitutional principle of representation by the ballot.
Critics of the government also argued that said proposal would disfranchise citizens of their rights to choose their leaders through democratic elections and further deny citizens of their rights to participate in the governance process of their country.
Some critics even foresee a sinister loophole, whereby a duly elected official who is not necessarily favored by the ruling party could be severely intimidated, or worse, killed, and superimposed by an official of the ruling party’s choice. Such a loophole is already foreshadowed by the near-deadly attack on Telia Urey during the Montserrado County District #15 by-elections re-run campaign period. And that attack was the third of such against Urey and her supporters, resulting from a ruling party campaign statement by President George Manneh Weah, who told his partisans to “flog that little girl” (referring to Ms. Urey). He declared that as long as he is President and as long as he is George Manneh Weah, “no Urey will ever win an election in Liberia.”
Such flagrant remarks by the President were construed by his partisans as marching orders to literally harm those he considered political opponents. Before the last attack on Ms. Urey, a Unity Party vehicle was vandalized on the street outside the fence of the National Elections Commission, while the person to whom the vehicle was assigned was inside, attending an elections dispute hearing. The perpetrator of the violence was caught on video and identified.
In November 2018, the Montserrado County District #13 by-election campaign rally of Cornelia Kruah Togba was disrupted by ruling party members led by CDC Youth Wing leader, Jefferson T. Koijee. Several people were severely injured and Madam Togba, who ran on the Unity Party ticket, had to be whisked off into hiding, along with Grand Bassa County Senator Nyonblee Karnga Lawrence, who had attended Togba’s campaign rally as a show of support.
To date, in all three cases, no investigations have been conducted, even though few persons from the attack on Urey were ceremoniously arrested. Since then, nothing else has been heard of those arrested.
Critics believe that, as expensive as by-elections are, they are necessary for democracy to survive in Liberia, or else the country would regress to a de facto one-party state under the guise of being penny-wise.
In a related development, the ECC has called for the amendment of section 2.1 of the new election law to create room for an inclusive and broad-based nomination process.
Mr. Joseph said the amendment of this section is necessary to “represent the diversity of the society through a public vetting exercise that allows the people to submit names to the President for appointment.”
“This process will ensure that individuals nominated will have the competencies in election management and to open room for diverse expertise,” Mr Johnson said.