Democracy At Last: Examining Populism in Liberia

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IMPORTANT NOTE TO READERS: The article on populism begins my “Democracy at Last” series. The series will examine understudied tendencies in national politics, which may potentially impact the consolidation of democracy.

The aim is to generate fresh debates. It is developed on the premise that the evolution of Liberian democracy has been reinforced by previous negative or positive governance practices. A lasting lesson is that Liberians must appreciate the nation’s founding promise of relentless pursuit of freedom, democracy, and inclusiveness. That undertaking started small, but the country has achieved “Democracy at Last.” This evolution will not stop, it might get diverted. No political progress takes full form at the beginning or at any point. Liberia is no different. Missteps will happen along the way, but improvements will continue to occur in tandem. The changes will eventually catalyze transformation of the status quo. For these reasons, Liberians should do sober reflection to prevent any sustained decline. Components of democracy are being built, but have not been institutionalized. It will take several generations to reach such a threshold. Liberians have experienced the absence of democracy and peace. By now we should know that gradual democratic change is better than tyranny and war. The way forward is debating our differences peacefully as a means of preserving and strengthening our institutions and bolstering our recovery. We need to be mindful that generations unfamiliar with the consequences of war could invite conflict when given the helm of power prematurely and without safeguards. This is why an urgent need exists for the present generation to do all it can to build a legacy steep in democratic values, virtues, and good governance. How we think about the nation’s challenges must catch up with the complexities and nuances of the problems themselves.

Populism is depicted as an anti-establishment brand of politics. It seeks political power by antagonizing the status quo, while appealing to the grassroots. Populist politicians set themselves apart as those advocating for the rights of the disenfranchised against the elites. In Liberia, its protracted slow transition to democracy has invited various efforts to mobilize constituencies from the non-privileged classes and academic/political left. In the 1970s and 1980s, even before, rural-urban poor coalition emerged to take on the ruling hegemony. The poorer segments of the population and their allies assessed that governance was skewed toward the dominant political class. This translated into progressive activism under the auspices of the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), and student and labor union organizations. Populism in contemporary Liberia is associated with the Congress/Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), which brands itself as representing the marginalized populations. CDC has a charismatic leader in Senator George Oppong Weah (GOW) with a zealous constituency. GOW is the wheel around which the spokes of CDC spins. CDC’s political life and GOW’s image might be inextricably linked. Comparison and contrast between the progressive and populist periods are yet to be made sufficiently.

For over a decade, discussions have been ongoing about the place that Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) occupies in Liberian politics. CDC is a grassroots movement turned populist political party. Now, it is the foremost opposition to the ruling Unity Party. Relatively few, if any, Liberian intellectuals have taken the difficult, but necessary steps to assess populism in the country. First, we need to understand what we mean by the term populism. It is the personality of the political party. Like all personalities, it is not simple to define and describe devoid of context. Populism includes tangibles and intangibles. Things that we can see are the ways that members of the party conduct themselves in public life. The intangibles may be harder to grasp, but they give a better read on the institution’s character. The values, beliefs, and assumptions of the party, what its leaders define as success – these are the intangible elements of populism. The intent is not to discuss the latter because it could lead to speculation given the lack of empirical evidence.

There is a stereotype about Liberia’s poor and disempowered that undergirds its variety of populism. Liberia’s urban poor/slum residents, largely youth, are considered the predominant supporters of CDC. Rural communities that have been wracked by high levels of poverty and unemployment also have young people who are quite enthusiastic about the CDC. Peri-urban communities where the middle and working class populations are shrinking also have shown a soft spot politically for CDC. There are those who stereotypically view this web of voters as those seeking mere handouts at times of election and not holding their elected representatives accountable to produce promised policy and programmatic outcomes. There might be some truth to this representation. Nonetheless, this characterization might be changing. Instead of t-shirts, phone cards, and a few dollars to spend on immediate gratification, there are CDC constituents whose views are shifting. Some argue that the period when material gifts and lofty slogans were attractive has passed. They suggest that their communities need infrastructural assets and opportunities for education, employment, and entrepreneurship that can lead to social development. For too long, the absence of critical infrastructure has weakened their prospects for achieving milestones that would close disparities with their middle class and wealthy peers. Investments that generate multiplier effects on the local economy and expand the productive capacity of its residents is what these constituents seek.

Here are a few questions for reflection:
• What strategy exists for CDC to expand its constituency to include greater numbers of middle/upper class voters?
• CDC appeal to those from the lowest echelons of society is based on their presumed distrust of those who occupy the centers of power. Once GOW and his legislative colleagues deepen their establishment credentials, how would they pivot out of this tight spot?
• CDC employs populist rhetoric and methods of mobilization. However, has it produced populist (pro-poor) meaningful policies and programs to address the perils of its constituency? Where are the workfare (employment) programs, introduced and/or implemented by CDC lawmakers? What are the rural employment and/or agricultural development programs that CDC can point to as its policy footprint? What anti-poverty and/or safety net programs can be attributed to CDC lawmakers? How has CDC set itself apart in addressing the country’s perennial governance challenges: poverty, inequality, insecurity, poor education, unemployment, health disparities, and more?
• CDC’s growth curve is reportedly flattening. Is there a lesson to learn from its perceived stagnation? Is a coalition with fledging and/or fringe opposition parties a sustainable remedy? What succession plan exists in the party? Should GOW depart from politics?
• Why has CDC not been able to turn the charisma and ardent following of its leader into broader-based voters’ confidence, leading to winning the presidency?
• Could CDC lose its bearing, character, and populist appeal, if it fails to win the presidency in the third try?
• What institutional capacity exists for democratic governance in the party, if it wins the presidency?

Could the fact that some past and present leaders of CDC have become or are slowly becoming embedded in the traditional political class signify that populism is merely a vehicle for accessing establishment political opportunities?

If criticizing the status quo is the sole purpose of populism, would that not make it a mirror image of what is wrong with traditional politics? How can CDC become a mainstream, progressive, Populist Party devoid of antics and build robust organizational capacity that would draw middle and even upper class voters? Simply, how would CDC diversify its constituency and use it to mount a stronger competition for the presidency? A robust, reliable, and responsive opposition political party remains an urgent need in building an accountable, transparent, and inclusive society, thus, preventing the avalanche of threats the nation faces in recovery. In the absence of a viable alternative, could in spite of the governing party’s institutional imperfections remain the most feasible opportunity for continuous peace and stability?

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