An amendment to the National Elections Law, sponsored by Senator Jewel Howard Taylor and a few colleagues, would require candidates contesting elections to pay the following amounts in United States dollars: presidential – $25,000; vice-presidential $15000; senatorial – $5000; and representative – $3000. Also, candidates for the positions of paramount, clan, and town chiefs would be required to pay $150, $100 and $50 respectively. The current law requires the following payments from candidates: presidential – $2,500; vice-presidential- $1,500; senatorial – $750; and representative – $300. The proposed amendment represents an astronomical increase of 1000% in the required presidential, vice-presidential and representative fees as well as 667% in the senatorial fee. One wonders why the fees for senatorial candidates received a lower percentage increase compared to other categories. Is it because the proposal emanated from the senate?
Interestingly, the Liberian Constitution requires in Article 52 (b) that individuals seeking to be president or vice president should be “the owners of unencumbered real property valued at not less than twenty-five thousand dollars” (Liberia or US?). This constitutional requirement is meant to ensure that candidates are property owners, taxpayers, and key stakeholders in their communities. To propose that candidates pay an additional twenty-five/fifteen thousand dollars in cash for the presidency/vice presidency respectively imposes unconscionable taxation on Liberians wishing to offer their leadership skills and expertise to develop the country. Participation must not be tagged to unbearable registration fees.
The joy of democracy is participation and inclusion. Prohibitive registration fees will stifle participation and exclude competent citizens from pursuit of democratic leadership. High registration fees restrict leadership to the wealthy. Allowing the wealthy class to monopolize politics is a recipe for conflict and could lead to official corruption in a bid to gain wealth for electoral advantage. The proposal to charge astronomical fees is tantamount to transforming our democratic system into a plutocracy. We have to guard against plutocratic tendencies taking over our fledgling democracy. Many Liberians are poor, and many of those that have the literate capacity and right leadership attributes may not boast bulging bank accounts to muster the proposed astronomical fees. Moreover, this amendment has the propensity of undermining the individuality of political participation. Some independent candidates and individuals in political parties will be deterred from contesting simply because they cannot afford the required fees.
Some politicians and legislators believe the proposed amendment will reduce the number of candidates, political parties and functional illiterates that participate in elections. We find these assertions interesting and wonder how leaders that are expected to drive our democracy would have such perverted thinking. Intriguingly, many of those advocating for the increment were once poor, but amassed wealth upon assuming high-level positions in government. What if the law had existed during their impoverished conditions? Would they have had the opportunity to be elected? In a country where wealth is usually accumulated through public sector pilferage, instead of business acumen and ingenuity, we are attempting to set the stage for the corrupt and unexplained-wealth-accumulators to tighten their control over the national purse and power.
Already, there are allegations of neglect of some constituencies by their lawmakers. Payment of such stratospheric fees may result to underperformance, as some legislators prioritize paying back borrowed registration fees compared to addressing problems in their constituencies. They could also manipulate competitive processes (procurement, contract award and ratification, recruitment of political appointees etc.) in favor of debtors as payback for financial support.
Liberia requires comprehensive reforms and actions to consolidate peace and successfully rebuild state structures that are resilient to the unsettling effects of wars and unwarranted socio-economic downturns. These reforms and actions have to be measured consistent with existing economic realities and must be informed by socio-economic and political norms and values of the Liberian society. After years of conflict, Liberia still remains fragile and cannot afford to relegate substantive citizens’ participation by passage of anti-democratic laws that undermine national cohesion with the propensity to divide the country between rich and poor – literate and illiterate. Historically, bad laws promoted a structure of state that marginalized many citizens and allowed the ruling class to accumulate wealth and cling unto power. Resistance to bad laws and marginalization of the majority segment of the society led to overthrow of the ruling elites in the 1980 coup and uprisings against the Doe and Taylor regimes.
Democracy in Liberia is thriving and citizens are enjoying unhindered power to field candidates of their choice albeit affordable candidacy fees. It would be unfortunate to change the game now to serve the interest of a few greedy and power hungry Liberians. Our current candidates’ registration fees are reasonable and affordable, and must be maintained. The onus is on the National Elections Commission to rigorously enforce acceptable laws and regulations that govern the political space. Higher standard is also required of the legislature to make laws that are satisfactory, balanced, and supportive of efforts to enhance the democratic space. When bad laws are made/proposed, like the one under review, few persons will be short-term beneficiaries, but many will suffer as time progresses. We must guard against proposing/enacting laws that seek to reduce competition, create wealth for a select few, and perpetuate their stay in power.
Thomas Doe Nah is Executive Director of the Center for Transparency and Accountability in CENTAL, the Liberian Chapter of Transparency International, the global anti-corruption coalition. Follow me on twitter @loveofliberty or email: [email protected]