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Liberian presidential election: Who will win?

9 October 2017 at 18:53 | 8125 views

By Dagbayonoh Kiah Nyanfore II, Monrovia.

On October 10, 2017, Liberians will go to the polls to elect a new president. The election would be crucial; it would be the first time since 1944 in Liberia a democratically elected president will turn over the presidency to another elected president. The new president will replace current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first female president in Africa, who will leave office in January 2018. Under the Liberian constitution, a president cannot run for a third term.

There are 20 presidential candidates running to replace President Sirleaf. According to public opinions, three candidates are leading in the race. They are Senator George Weah (photo), Coalition for Democratic Change, CDC; Vice President Joseph Boakai, ruling Unity Party, UP; and Counselor Charles Brumskine, Liberty Party, LP. These parties were in the last two presidential elections. UP won all. However, this time in this election, the opposition vows to win, vows for change. It is an election in which change vs. continuity. It is a crucial and important election not only for Liberians, but also for the international community, particularly the African south region. The international community was instrumental in bringing peace and sustaining peace in Liberia.

Failed promises
The Sirleaf-Boakai Unity Party won the 2005 election. Liberia had just come out of a 14-year civil war. Besides the loss of thousands of lives, basic infrastructures were destroyed and human services were down. With her Harvard education and international experience, the Liberian people elected Sirleaf over football legend George Weah, who admitted that he was a high school dropout. Weah returned to school and now has obtained a Master’s degree.

During the first election, UP made many promises, including electrifying Monrovia in six months, bringing clean and safe drinking water, reducing unemployment and increasing employment, fostering road connectivity throughout the counties, increasing infrastructural development, and fighting and reducing corruption. However, the UP led government failed to meet these promises.

Nevertheless, the UP government sought a second term in 2011, though President Sirleaf had promised the Liberian people that she would run for only one term. But she decided to go for another term apparently in part to redeem herself and her party from the failure. She struggled in that election. Her party won the runoff election without opposition because CDC, which had won second place, boycotted the election for alleged fraud, paving an easy victory for UP. Liberty Party with standard bearer Charles Brumskine performed poorly. Interestingly, Brumskine was Sirleaf strongest critic during the first term and even to Election Day in 2011. But contradictorily during the runoff, he and his party supported president Sirleaf and her Unity Party.
In the 2011 election, UP again promised the Liberian people that it would create not less than 20,000 jobs annually, provide 24 hours electricity, connect all county capitals with road networks, insure Liberian businesses to banking and other loan assistance, increase the salaries of teachers and healthcare workers particularly in rural Liberia, and provide support to farmers to increase food production. Again, the party fails to live up to its promises. Sadly the invasion of Ebola into Liberia in 2014 exposed the country poor healthcare system and services, as thousands of Liberians died from the deadly disease.

In her last address to the Liberian legislature, the president admitted that the UP led government has failed to fight corruption and failed to reconcile Liberians. She had previously called the education system as a mess. Vice President Boakai has stated publically that the government has squandered lots of opportunities given to the administration, and indeed the regime could have done much more.
However, the government has met some successes, notably there is freedom of press and speech, the road from Ganta to Monrovia and the one from Gbanga to Ganta have been rehabbed. Also there is peace despite its fragility. President Sirleaf, the Liberian people, and the international community deserve credit for keeping the peace.

Hard time
Nevertheless, poverty in the country is very high. Today in Liberia, economic condition has worsened, making things harder for the ordinary Liberians. Most Liberians live on less than US$1.25 a day. Employment has not increased; the unemployment rate is about 85% since 2006, despite over US$16M which has come into the country in international assistance and investments. The cost for a cup of rice, Liberia stable food, has increased from LD$15 in 2014 to LD$30 or LD$35 currently. Prices in the market for other food stuffs have gone up. School fees, healthcare and transportation costs have increased. For instance, registration fee for visit at the JFK Hospital, a government referral hospital, costs US$20, a monthly income for some Liberians. Moreover, most Liberians are paid in Liberian dollars, which is exchanged at 124LD$ to US$1. As the US dollar goes up, the purchasing power of the Liberian dollar decreases. This means, for instance, civil servants salary will buy less food.
The high rate of the US dollar has made condition difficult for local traders who must buy goods in US dollars. The cost difference is passed on to consumers, mostly poor. The needs for the American dollars and the transferring of such currency by government officials to their families in the US have increased the condition.
As stated earlier, there are 20 presidential candidates in this election. Most candidates and their parties are newcomers to Liberian electoral politics. CDC, UP and LP are the older ones. They have strongholds. The well financed but new parties are headed by the Americo-Liberians, including Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party; Alexander Cummings of the Alternative National Congress; Mills Jones of the Movement for Economic Empowerment; and Oscar Cooper, independent presidential candidate. Besides Cooper, none of the new and financially strong candidates has held an elected government post. They have no stronghold, even though Alexander Cummings of ANC is making an inroad.

Urey is a farmer and a businessman. He is a minority owner of Lone Star cell, a telecommunication company. Cummings is a former Coco-Cola executive, who had lived abroad for many years before returning to Liberia recently to run for president. Credible reports say that he is an American citizen, a violation of Liberian constitution for the presidency. He has not denied the allegation. Jones is a former governor of the Central Bank of Liberia. Cooper is a Liberian senator and a businessman. He owns a large rubber farm and a timber industry. These candidates are considered millionaires or very wealthy. All parties, including those not named, vow to win the election in the first round.

I attended the official campaign launching of the three major parties. CDC had the largest crowd, followed by UP. LP crowd, though large, was not as big as UP. While crowd and polls are not definitive measurement of winning a political election, three polls conducted by International Political Polls (IPP), a seemingly reputable international polling firm, showed CDC leading in the first two polls with LP second and UP third. Weah leads high in first-time youth voters. Weah leads Brumskine 1%, but leads Boakai about 5% The last poll which was done in late September showed LP leading slightly by one percentage point over CDC. UP Boakao was third. Accordingly, LP’s lead was attributed to support from women. The reduction in the number of undecided women voters seems to have benefited Brumskines as the poll indicates. With a margin of error of about 1.75%, the race is statistically close. But the polls have been criticized by one of the parties as not credible.

Liberia is divided into 15 counties. Montserrado is the largest populated county, follows by Nimba, Bong, Lofa, Margibi and Grand Bassa. For this election, Montserrado has 35% of the registered voters, Nimba with 13%; Bong, 9%; Lofa, 8%; Margibi, 7%; and Grand Bassa, 7%. Montserrado is considered CDC stronghold. The party political leader George Weah is Montserrado senior senator. Bassa is LP and Lofa, VP Boakai home town, is UP. A party/candidate must have 50% plus one vote to win a presidential election in the first round. If no party gets the required percentage, the election would go for a runoff with the two parties with the highest votes.
A party with a significant number of votes from the large counties plus a respectable support from the smaller counties will do very well in this election. Youth turnout will also be important. Over 60% of the registered voters are young Liberians; they constitute over 50% of the national population. Therefore, the party that is youth oriented and mobilizes its youth base to the polls would also perform well; or I may so, it would be in the driver’s seat.

Will there be cheating?
Some observers think that this election would not be fair and transparent; pointing out that the president would influence the Liberian National Elections Commission (NEC) and the Supreme Court to act in favor of the opposition. Some based this assertion on the view that members of NEC and county magistrates visited the president at her residence; and that the president does not support the VP but backs an opposition party.

The recent ruling of the Supreme Court allowing the Liberty Party vice standard bearer Harrison Karnwea to contest in the election is another reason. The NEC had denied Karnwea from contesting because he violated the Codes of Conduct, which also requires that a Liberian who works in the government in a presidential appointed position and desirous of canvassing in an election as an aspirant must resign from that post 2 or 3 years prior to the election. Karnwea, a former presidential appointee, did not resign his position in time and therefore NEC rejected his application to contest. Prior to the denial, LP standard bearer Brumskine selected him as vice running mate.
Karnwea appealed his rejection to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in his favor and allowed him to contest. The decision was a u-turn from a previous Supreme Court ruling finding the Codes constitutional and binding and which had supported NEC earlier rejection of another candidate.

The high court ruling opened the way for other candidates who were in violation of the Codes to contest. Moreover, the decision enabled Cummings and other candidates who violated the constitution to freely contest. It makes the Code meaningless and the constitution toothless. Many Liberians disfavored the decision and considered it a violation of the constitution. Some members of the legislature attempted to take action to impeach the justices. It was alleged that the president, in favor of the Liberty Party, influenced the court decision.

The president’s interview with CNN during her recent visit to the UN did not dismiss the speculation that she prefers a younger person to succeed her. In that interview, President Sirleaf called for a generational change, meaning that the leadership of the country should be handed over to the young generation. UP partisans and supporters of Vice President Boakai viewed the interview unfortunate, for it considered the VP, who is over 73 years, not a part of Liberia’s future leadership.

Another move of concern is the fact that NEC has ordered close to a million extra voting ballots for the 2.1 million registered voters for this election. Critics say that the extra ballots are too many, more than the 10% extra ballots required by international standard.

Party infighting
Assuming that the assertions regarding President Sirleaf are true, why would the president not support her vice president who has been with her for 12 years? And why would the VP, considering his age and health, want to become president? Review of the following discussion might throw some light.
The president has said on many occasions that she and the vice president came together and would leave together. VP Boakai never showed any indication to the contrary. This encouraged other younger partisans in the party echelon to consider the presidency. They may have informed the president of this consideration or the president may have encouraged them. But in 2016, the vice president may have had a change of heart, thanks in part to party chairman Counselor Varney Sherman now a senator. With the senator by his side, Boakai accepted an endorsement appeal from the VP kinsmen in Lofa for the presidency.

The president apparently was not prior informed of this move. Note that the president and the party chairman were not on good term, an ugly relation, which may have been going on long quietly. When Sherman ran for the senate in 2014, the president did not campaign for him but campaign stead for the reelection of senate pro-tempore Gmehzongar Findley, who lost that bid. At the party convention in 2016, Vice President Boakai was elected on a white ballot as standard bearer for the party for election 2017. UP, despite poor performances in two terms, wants the Liberian people to give the party a third term.

In 2016 Sherman was implicated, charged and arrested in the Silver Mining bribery case. Other former and current government officials were also indicted. It was alleged that the president had hands in Sherman’s arrest and embarrassment. Sherman was forced to relinquish the chairmanship. As the split deepens, Boakai either not knowing it and pretended not to know, drew closer to Sherman, listening and taking advice from the senator. At the same time, the president may have quietly aloof
from the VP presidential campaign.

In an earlier article I stated further this conflict thus:
The president was not pleased of the actions. Meanwhile, sensing her quiet and gradual withdrawer from party related matters and the non support or slow pace of funding, the vice president took a bold step to arrange an interview with FrontPage Africa, the country leading and internationally known newspaper. In the interview, the VP publically informed of the president’s non support of his candidacy. He indicated that he was not the one saying it, but others are saying that the president is supporting Brumskin and the Liberty Party. VP Boakai touched on other issues indicating the existence of a president – vice president conflict.

Seemingly, the former party chair was using the VP in response to the chairman bad relation with the president. But the second question is why the vice president changed his mind to retire after 12 years of vice presidency and after over 45 years of service in government. He has made enough money, controlling an annual office budget of $2.4M as vice president. Why could not him spend the rest of his life in peace and enjoy the pleasure of people seeking his advice as a former and elder statesman?
Vice President Boakai may have first committed to retire with the president as promised. He was apparently influenced and encouraged by those who fear that an end of the administration would cause losing their government jobs. They may have advised the VP to stay on, saying that “uncle you can win, you can become a better president; the president does not like you because you are a country or a native man and not an Americo-Liberian”.

The other reason could have been the result of the African culture of president staying long in office, never like to retire but to stay in power until death or force out of power. Boakai may have felt the destiny of being the first president of Liberia from Lofa County. Ethnic solidarity and influence is a major factor in African politics and society. On the other hand, the VP as a Liberian has the right to seek the presidency regardless of promise or age.

October 10 is the D-Day. Liberians are looking to this election for a better future. The world would be watching. In this election, what is clear from my observations is that Liberians are tired of poverty and are looking for change and a better living condition. The enthusiasm to vote is very high. I think the turnout would be huge.
All political campaigning will end October 8 midnight. Yesterday October 6 CDC held its victory rally at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium (ATS) in Monrovia. The stadium was packed to capacity. Today Saturday ANC and UP will climax their campaign gathering at the ATS and at the UP compound respectively. ANC is showing strength in the final hours.

The three parties discussed prior could receive the highest votes. They have been around and have diehard followers. I further predict that CDC of Senator George Wean would be in the second round if the race goes to a runoff. Either UP or LP would go to the second phase. The idea of a first round victory, though difficult, is not impossible.

I will vote in this election. It will be my first time voting as a Liberian; and I look forward to a fair, peaceful, and transparent election. It is a pleasure to be in Liberia and to cover the election.