Liberia’s Presidential Runoff: A Test For Its Fragile Democracy – Analysis


By Samir Bhattacharya

On14 November, the people of Liberia once again voted when incumbent president George Weah was seeking a second six-year term. The leading candidates in the polls were the incumbent, George Weah, 57, and the former vice president, Joseph Boakai, 78.

In this tightly contested presidential election, President Weah, a former soccer superstar, got 43.8 percent of the votes, while his rival Boakai, a political veteran, received 43.4 percent. The nation held a runoff election since neither candidate could garner an absolute majority of at least 50 percent of the vote. A new president is expected to be sworn in in January 2024. With the run-off expected to be closely fought, the country stands at a significant crossroads in its history.

Liberian Election 2023

On 10 October 2023, the people of Liberia cast their ballots in the critical presidential and parliamentary elections. The current one marks the fourth cycle of elections since the end of the country’s devastating civil war in 2003. This time, a record two million registered voters voted for 46 political parties and 20 presidential candidates. Despite women comprising 50 percent of registered voters, only two women were presidential contenders.

Except for a few charges of bartering and monetisation, the election campaign was vibrant and full of activities. Over 10,000 observers from national, regional, and international organisations, notably 100 observers from the European Union (EU),closely watched the election. In addition, the African Union deployed 60 observers, led by former South African Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, on a temporary assignment to cover the election. All of the observers were transparently accredited by the National Elections Commission (NEC).

As per these observers, the election was orderly and peaceful. While the large turnout, the lengthy protocols and their execution slowed down the polling, the high participation from the Liberian voters demonstrated their respect for the democratic process, and the conduct of NEC officials was highly satisfactory.

The violent history of Liberia

Located in West Africa, Liberia is Africa’s oldest republic. Yet, the coastal nation remains one of the least developed countries worldwide. The country has weathered two civil wars that lasted 14 years (1989-2003). The civil wars of Liberia were among the worst in modern history, with an estimated 250,000 people—roughly a tenth of the population—losing their lives. Horrible atrocities were carried out during the Civil War, including the forcing of child soldiers to kill their parents by drug-addled commanders, the smashing of children’s heads against walls or stones, the opening of pregnant women’s bellies to remove their babies, and the forcing of civilians to consume human flesh.

The United States (US) did not get involved in the widespread civil war despite having a close historical relationship. Liberia was unlucky that the crisis broke out during a pivotal period in the history of the world. From 1989 to 1991, most Western European governments were preoccupied with the fall of socialism in Eastern Europe, particularly in the former Soviet Union. Europe was experiencing significant political upheaval, including the union of the East and West and the ensuing escalation of the Yugoslavian conflict. Europe likewise paid little attention to conflicts elsewhere because it was occupied with its own internal dynamics. Furthermore, Liberia was not strategically or militarily significant to Europe at that time.

Top agendas of the election

Liberia is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index, indicating that corruption continues to be ubiquitous. Following sanctions imposed by the US Treasury on three close associates, including his Chief of Staff, Nathaniel McGill, President Weah was forced to accept their resignations last year. They were all three connected to questionable contracts and misappropriation of public funds. In addition, the COVID-19 epidemic and the consequences of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have caused a sharp rise in the cost of food and fuel. June saw the most outstanding level of inflation in almost two years, at 12.4 percent.

If re-elected, the incumbent President has promised to improve access to power, healthcare, and education by building new roads. To promote an environment that is business-friendly, he has also vowed to cut debt, stop the devaluation of the Liberian currency relative to the US dollar, and put in place several fiscal and monetary policies that will lower inflation to less than 10 percent. On the other hand, Boakai, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s deputy, has taken advantage of the general anti-Weah feeling to garner support. He has promised to boost agricultural productivity, upgrade the country’s infrastructure, and—above all—save Liberia from what is allegedly mishandled by Weah’s government.

Risks of violence

Despite considerable administrative shortcomings and divisive rhetoric, Liberia had little bloodshed during the two previous post-conflict elections (in 2005 and 2011). Additionally, on 4 April 2023, all 46 political parties in Liberia signed the updated Farmington River Declaration 2023, which vowed to settle electoral disputes through the legal system both before and after elections.

However, a month before the October election, there were violent altercations in several parts of the nation between members of the ruling Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC) and the opposition Unity Party. Furthermore, Lofa County saw at least two deaths and 20 injuries as a result of this pre-election violence.

Significance of this election

Despite the international media’s general disregard for the Liberian election, it was a historic occasion for the nation. In the history of Liberia’s contemporary democratic elections, this level of turnout is unparalleled. Additionally, it was the first general election held following a conflict which was entirely coordinated by the Liberian institutions without any assistance from any foreign partners, such as the United Nations (UN) or the security forces of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

In fact, a fresh runoff between the two men would mark a repeat of the 2017 elections. That time, Weah easily prevailed in the second round with 61.54 percent of the vote. However, rising living costs and widespread corruption have sapped his support and analysts believe that there is an opportunity for both contenders to win. In any case, it is anticipated that this year’s outcomes will be closer.

Way forward

The election in Liberia took place on the 20th anniversary of the 2003 Accra Peace Agreement, which ended the second Liberian civil war. Although some worry that violence may erupt if the result in the next round is close, it has so far been a peaceful and broadly fair presidential election, the first since UN peacekeepers left in 2018. In addition to attesting to Liberia’s efforts to preserve its democracy, a peaceful runoff demonstrated that the nation has managed to defeat the odds a democratically volatile region faces.

There are some clear indications of democratic backsliding in the region with the recent military coups in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Gabon, the anti-government demonstrations in Sierra Leone, and the unrest surrounding Ouattara’s success in the third term of reelection in Côte d’Ivoire. Given that it offers a glimmer of optimism for the continent shaken by coups, this election is especially significant for Africa and Liberia, both of which have suffered civil conflicts. Liberia is, in fact, at a turning point. A peaceful election is a significant accomplishment for Liberia at this point, given the nation is just emerging from two horrific civil wars. As things stand, Liberia undertook its historically most significant election.

About the author: Samir Bhattacharya is Senior Research Associate at Vivekananda International Foundation

Source: This article was published at the Observer Research Foundation

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