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!!!