With President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf set to step down after 12 years office, 20 candidates are competing to replace her. On 10 October 2017, Liberia will go to the polls in what could be the country’s most hotly-contested and unpredictable elections yet. In a race that has seen a host of fresh political entrants, Liberians will select a new president as well as members of the House of Representatives, reports suggest:
These will be Liberia’s third combined presidential and legislative elections since the end of a devastating 14-year armed conflict in 2003. The first, in 2005, were remarkable. After a century of one-party state rule followed by decades of struggles for multi-party democracy, Liberia’s 2005 elections were highly competitive. State resources were fairly evenly spread. Violence and overt rigging were almost absent.
“This election is an important stage in the consolidation of Liberia’s democracy,” said Jordan Ryan, vice president of the Carter Center’s peace programs.
The U.S. Congress conducted a hearing into “The Future of Democracy and Governance in Liberia” on Wednesday, recalling Liberia’s emergence from ruthless civil war orchestrated by jailed former President Charles Taylor, FrontPageAfrica reports. “We remember the horrors of Charles Taylor, his brutal regime in Liberia, and his support of the vicious rape, mutilation, and murder of tens of thousands of people in Sierra Leone and the region,” the House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman, Representative Ed Royce, said in opening remarks (below).
Corruption is the most vulnerable aspect of Liberia’s democracy, as in many other African democracies, said Dave Peterson, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Senior Director for Africa.
“Nepotism, ethnic favoritism, shady contracts, vote-buying, land deals, and other forms of both grand and petty corruption can only undermine popular support for democracy,” he told the committee. Despite many candidates joining President Sirleaf in expressing willingness to combat corruption, Liberians have witnessed little progress.
The country must overcome many other challenges to consolidate its nascent democracy, said Peterson.
“The struggling economy, massive unemployment and dependence on the informal sector, ethnic conflict, religious conflict, land conflict, women’s rights, environmental destruction, and many other difficult problems will not be easily solved,” he said. “Yet I remain optimistic that with political will, popular commitment, and some modest assistance from international partners, Liberia can consolidate its democracy and steadily improve its governance.”
Liberia is fortunate to be surrounded by democratic-minded neighbors more likely to support Liberia’s democratic trajectory than to subvert it, he added, noting that the cross-border attacks that used to occur between Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Cote d’Ivoire have ended. The withdrawal of UN and ECOWAS troops is a sign of confidence that Liberia’s own security institutions are robust enough to maintain order and protect the country.
But the legislature has not always showed the independence and integrity that Liberians would like, said Peterson.
“Only one-third of Liberian voters believe that members of the House of Representatives reflect their views, according to Afrobarometer, and one of the popular issues in the campaign has been the call to cut legislators’ and government officials’ salaries and benefits, which are indeed relatively high,” he noted. “The legislature’s budget is almost equal to that of the entire education system.”
Nevertheless, Liberians are enthusiastic about the elections and have faith in their ability to determine the outcome, according to recent focus group studies undertaken by the National Democratic Institute, said Christopher Fomunyoh, NDI’s Senior Associate and Regional Director for Central and West Africa.
The future of Liberia’s democracy will hinge, in the short-term, on the perceived success or failure of the October polls and in the long-term, on the ability of future leaders to consolidate the gains that have been made in the last decade in improving governance and meeting citizen demands, he told the committee.
Meanwhile, the Liberian media has been urged to promote and self-regulate adherence to a code of conduct during this election process. “Report only verified information, discourage inciteful language and dispel rumors,” said members of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) pre-election assessment delegation.