Elections as a Tool  for  Consolidating the  Process of Development and Peace

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By C. B. Allen, Jr.

Historically, elections  in  Liberia have  always  marked  the  turning  points  of our  history. In  1870 the  election of E. J. Roye  marked  the  beginning  of  the TWP (True  Whig Party)  which  represented  the  economic  might of  the  dark-skinned  settlers over the Republican  Party of  the  lighter  skinned (Americo-Liberians). The 1927 elections underlined the controversy  of CDB King mercantilist agenda of the Firestone agreement and after the  Fernando Po forced recruitment  of  laborers  investigation to  that of the  more  considerate sophisticated  approach of President  Edwin Barclay who  served  for  a period of 14 years. The  1955  election which brought  President  William  Tubman for  an initial period of 8 years  represented  a change of an outsider (out of  Monrovia) with a subsequent  change  in the  constitution, which facilitated an unlimited succession of  four years each. Tubman then ruled for 27 years before dying in office in 1971, and is remembered for using his economic successes and the state  bureaucracy to suppress any opposition. He  was  succeeded by a more liberal President Tolbert  who  ruled  for 9 years  and  was overthrown in 1980 by President Doe, who ruled  for  a total of  9  years,  five of  which  were  under  the  1986  Constitution, which  more or less is  still in force  today. President Tolbert is  remembered  chiefly  for  trying  to  ride  the  back of  the  twin  tigers of  economic  restructuring and promoting  changes/adjustment in  the  political  system. President  Sirleaf  after 12  years, 2 republics  and 170  years of  governance, is  now turning over in  an  election which  highlights all the  progress  and  prospects of Liberian politics.

Factors Influencing Elections

Elections provide the opportunity for  the  electorate to assess  the  state of  affairs of  the  existing  body politic. However, for this decision to  be  obtained in  theory  assumes  that  the  electorate is well informed of  the different choices and  the implications of  these  choices.

In less  developed  nations  such  as  Liberia, Government  control (effective or  non-effective), and  the  enormous powers  of the  executive  in  the  economic  operation of  the  state (through concessions, state  enterprises, regulations on  the private  sector  etc..) contribute  to  the  environment  of  elections; especially  the  president  who operates  as  the  chief  executive  officer of  the  state with little, if any, restraint on their  influence  and  power by  those   mandated  to  check  and  balance  this   influence  and  power. Many   contestants  run  for  office  through  various  parties  each  with  supporters  whose  interest is  to  gain  access  and  influence  to political  and  economic power  within  the  state. This  strategy puts  efficient operation of  the  state  through the  civil  service  at  risk  as  continuous  reform  and  improvements of  the  state  operating mechanism is  left  to political  appointees  who may not  have  the  relevant  expertise  to  ensure  delivery of   required  services.

Non delivery of  required services  can lead  to  dissatisfaction  and  increased  alienation of  the  people  from their  government  and   poses  significant  risk  to  democracy. When a significant portion or in the case of Liberia, a majority of the  population  is  very young and  significantly not  well  educated or is  not  adequately  absorbed  in   economic  activity, the  potential  for  social  unrest is  huge.

In  addition  to this,  the  media  which   constitutes  the  fourth  estate  (after  the three other  branches) suffers  from  the   same  lack  of  capacity affecting  the  general population: that of  inadequate education. The deficit of  informed dialogue  between  the  governed  and  the  governors  places the stability of  the  nation at serious risk. Sociopolitical  and economic  forces  as  indicated  above  do  have a critical impact on   the   decisions  of the  electorate  at   election  time but  not  necessarily as  conventional  wisdom  would  project, as  alienation/dissatisfaction  can  result in significant protest  voting.

The Election Process

The  1986  Constitution is  highly  prescriptive (see Chapter 7) of  the  electoral process even  to  the point of  specifying  the  number of  days  within  which  electoral  complaints  can  be  filed  and  then be addressed  by  the  Elections  Commission; a  ceiling on  the  number of  constituencies  that  can  be  created (100); who is allowed  to  contribute  to  political  parties, etc. The  constitution  requires  at least  90  days  for  campaigning. In  the  current  election  we  have  been  given  only  ten (10)  weeks.

Chapter  5  &  6  of  the constitution regarding  the  eligibility of  candidates  for  the  legislature  as  well as  the  Executive  were  drafted  within  the  context  of  the  then  transition  from  military  rule. It  set out  guidelines  for  residency, minimum  age, and  material  worth. Given  the  changed  nature of our  current  society, one  should  expect  a  robust public  discussion on  these. But  given  that  the  current incumbents/ politicians  are  the  beneficiaries of  these  rules, we  should  not  expect  that  they  will lead  the  discussion. Informed   and  well- meaning citizens must   begin  the process of  discussion  so  that   decisions made  reflect  current  realities which  look  to  the  future. Short cut but  convenient decisions  by  the  political  class only  reinforce  the  suspicions  of  the  general population  that  the  system is  being  rigged.

The  fact  that the  1986 Constitution  calls  for elections  of paramount, clan  and  town  chiefs along  with  municipal  leaders  but  is  not  yet  implemented  further  leads  to  the (widely held) perception that  the  political  class only  implements  those   issues  that  are in  their  interest  without  regard  to what  the law  says.

Political  Association: parties, their roles  and  linkage  to  a  system of  good  governance

To establish a political  party, the  constitution  requires a  minimum  of  500 qualified voters in  each of  at least six counties, a  democratic (??)  constitution committing  to holding  free  and  fair  election of  its  national  officers at  least once every  six  years, national officers   to  be  diverse in  ethnic  and  regional  background and  membership open  to  all ethnic,  religious,  regional and  gender and  non  support of  any  armed  group.

The  base of  500  was  set in  1986  when  our  census  indicated  a population of  2.1 million.  In 1985  there  were 9  counties  so  six  made the  threshold  of 2/3. Now  there  are  15  counties. Assuming  the  same  logic  would mandate at least the  spread of  voters from 10  counties be indicated. Arguments  also  abound  that because  the  fee  to  establish  parties  are low (US$1,800)  this  has  allowed  too many  parties. While  the  intent  of  the  constitution  was  to  allow   broad participation, it  can  be  argued  that  the  current  level  has  led  to  an  multiplicity of parties, many of  which add  nothing  to  the  national  discussion  and  only   provides  a  vehicle  for  individuals  to  showcase  their  own personalities. The   issue of  personalities rather  than  philosophy or  ideology  seem  to  remain the  negative  trademark  of  our  political  culture. Rather  than  espousing  a path or solution  of  the  perceived  sociopolitical challenges, the  current  political  dispensation  provides  a beauty  contest  approach  to mapping out  the  nation’s  political  agenda. If  the  situation  is  not  remedied,  the political process in  Liberia  will  continue  to  be  one  of  stalemate  with  second  best options   being  chosen  rather  than  decisions  made on  clearly  defined  issues which  from  the  inception  provides  the  winner  with  outlines of  issues  the  voters  require him/her  to  resolve.

Further,  the  link  between political  actors  and  their political institution(  the  parties) are  not  (tightly/ legally) robust. How/when  can  the  activity/responsibility  of  the  action/decision of  a   political  officer  be   tied  to  his corporate  body? Can/should an elected official  operate  outside  of  his  party’s decisions. A progressive approach  should  provide  for strengthening of  the  political  parties  as  institutions  of  the  political  framework. And  the  officer  as  agents  of  these  institutions. Again  in  the  absence  of  an informed  discussion,  the political  class has  elected   to  remain  mute on  this  significant  factor  of  corporate  governance.

While  the  process of  political consolidation between parties continues at  the  current pace, the  dissolution  of  parties  as outlined  in  Chapter 9 as  with  most  legal processes in  Liberia  are  fraught  with  minefields, and  the  NEC  has  shied  away  from  stepping into  this  minefield  given  that its  portfolio of  tasks  along  with its  capacity is  undergoing  significant stress.

Proper monitoring of funding of political  parties, a critical mechanism  for  integrity remains non  existent  as  the  actual  assets (most  visibly  vehicles)  owned by   most  of  the  established  parties  bear  little  resemblance  to what is  reported  in  their financial  disclosure  reports. This  discrepancy  again  contributes  to  the   perception  that  the  system of  electoral  system  is  rigged. The  campaign  spending  thresholds of not  more than US$2M, US$1M, US$600K, US$400K and US$75K for President, VP, Senator, Representative and other officials respectively bears  little  resemblance  to  how  much is  actually  spent,  further reinforcing  the  perception. If  and  when  a  law  is  enacted  which  cannot or  is  not  enforced, this has  a  direct  relation  to  how  citizens view their  relationship within a  social contract.

The  issue of constituency  and the  relevant  thresholds  remain  unresolved  such  that  despite  rulings  by  the  Supreme Court  to  the  contrary  the  current  situation  remains  unconstitutional. By  changing  from  a majority to  a plurality requirement for  winning  elections  and  allowing a low  requirement  threshold, the  effect is to  allow in heterogeneous  constituencies  with  large  amount of  candidates (10 or more) for  the  winner  to  win  with  a  small  enough margin (sometimes not  more  than  300 votes)  and  be  unrepresentative  of  the   constituency and  favor  those  candidates  who represent   narrow rather  than  broad  based  interests (e.g.  Nimba and  Lofa).

Civic  Education  as Part of the Electoral Process

In view  of  all  the  above challenges  the  electorate  is   left  in a state of  bewilderment  and required  to put  their  choice in the  ballot  box and  somehow magically pull  a proverbial rabbit out  of  this  hat. This  disservice  to  the  nation  continues  because  it  allows  the political class to, as we say, have  their  cake  and  eat  it  at  the  same time. By  playing  to  natural  fears, insecurities and  concerns at elections  they manipulate  the  decisions  made  and  inside of  a  wider  political  consensus  being  generated  the  lack of  information on  the  way  forward, the  many  and  various  socioeconomic  fault lines  are  reinforced  and  progress  is  measured in  decades  rather  than   discrete  time lines. Nearly  forty  years  since  the overthrow of  President Tolbert, the  progressive debate in  Liberia  is  marked  by  a discussion  which  as  yet  cannot   agree on  how  Liberia  can  achieve  the agreed  Vision 2030 and  how the  current systemic  issues  are  going  to be  addressed. Political  parties  are  still  printing  beautiful posters  with  candidates pictures  and  slogans only.

To  change  this  going  forward,   requires  that  the  governance  mechanism   implements   civic and voter education via  public  media  and  town  hall  meetings  even  before  the  next  set of  election (Senate  in  2019). Civic  education  relates  to   the  organic  law and its   implications  and  requirements on  the   governed  as  well  as  the  governors  while  voter  education  relates  to  the  electoral process. A sustained  process of  education  along  these  two  lines  will enhance  the   operation  of  the  Liberian  state. If  voter  education is  only  viewed  as   relevant   within  a voting  period  the  connection of  an  informed  electorate  to a  democratic process  will  continue  being lost.

Electoral  Validation: before and after the counting

Realizing  the electorate harbors a  deep skepticism/cynicism about the  entire  process due  to lack of  faith in  the mechanism of  governance, it is  important that relevant institutions    err on  the side of  reinforcing  trust  when  faced  with decisions. Perceptions  it  is  said, breed reality. The Code of  Conduct  Act, which  affected much  more  than  the  opportunity of  would  be   aspirants  to participate in  the  electoral process, is  a seminal  example  of  the  continuing  and arguable intentional confusion  the  general public  feels  is  purported by  the  political  class. The  law  covered  the  conduct of  public  officials  while  in  office  and  although conveniently submitted long in advance of  the  election timetable  was  only  acted on  when  the process  began with  attention  being  placed on  eligibility  to participate in  the  electoral process.  After amending  the   draft  sent by  the  Executive  to  suit its own   consideration(s)  the  bill was  approved  by  the  Legislature. The new law  was challenged  by  officials  and confirmed  as  constitutional by  the  court allowing  a full range of  incumbents  from  the  Executive  to participate. After this was  done  the  Supreme  Court  then in  another twist, termed the  law  as  egregious and  struck  down  certain portions. What  is  the population to make of this?

The  process for protesting of results  can  also  cause instability if/when  it is  perceived  that  the  system  is  used  to the  advantage of  one  party  as opposed  to  another. As  the  decision of  the  Kenyan Supreme Court  indicated, elections  are  not  just  about  statistics  but  about  the  whole  process. We trust  that  both  NEC, the representatives of  the political parties  at the  voting  stations, the  much honored international  community  and  the  Supreme  Court  remain  cognizant  that  the  world  we  now  occupy is  a  Global  Village  and  best  practices  for  stability  and true  democracy  are  the only path  for us  to  maintain.

All  hail  Liberia!! All hail!!!

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