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Liberia – Expert Briefing

  • Liberia has a presidential system of government
  • The president is elected by absolute majority (50% plus one vote) while members of the legislature are elected by simple majority vote (first past the post)
  • Liberia has a 73 seat House of Representatives and a 30 seat Senate
  • There is a constitutional term limit for the president of two six-year terms. Proposals to reduce the tenure to four years have been debated in the legislature but not yet adopted
  • Multi-party democracy was introduced for the 1985 elections and in the following year a new constitution was promulgated, having been approved by a referendum in 1984
  • In election years the polling date is determined by a constitutional provision as the second Tuesday of October
  • Voter registration will take place between 1 February and 7 March, with around two million Liberians expected to enroll
  • Follow the election on Twitter: #Liberia2017 #LiberiaDecides

The 2017 elections are a significant milestone for Liberia’s political development. For the first time since the end of civil conflict in 2003, they will be organised solely by Liberian institutions and overseen by Liberian security forces. During the past decade the National Elections Commission (NEC) and the Supreme Court have sought to strengthen systems and processes to deliver credible elections and ensure speedy adjudication of election-related disputes. The preparations will be put to the test on 10 October, when Liberians will elect a new president and members of its 73-seat House of Representatives. The role played by civil society will also be crucial to success. NEC has accredited at least 750 organisations to conduct voter education and monitor the election cycle in its entirety, from registration to the counting of ballots.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is constitutionally ineligible to stand in 2017, having served two six-year terms. This will be the first time in more than 70 years that a peaceful transition will take place between living presidents. The last time this occurred was in 1944, when President Edwin Barclay gave way to his chosen successor, William V.S. Tubman.

Liberia’s original system of competitive multi-party democracy was derailed in the mid-1950s when the True Whig Party (TWP) consolidated power and eliminated opposition. The TWP’s political dominance ended on 12 April 1980 when non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces overthrew the government, abrogated the 1847 Constitution and installed a junta government under the banner of the People’s Redemption Council (PRC). In 1985, having ruled by decree for five years, Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe, the PRC’s leader, held controversial elections that were won by his newly created National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL). Election-related grievances and the NDPL’s repressive regime forced many opponents into exile. In 1989, Charles Taylor, a former junta official and other exiles launched an armed insurgency to overthrow Doe’s government. Doe was killed in 1990, but the war continued as multiple factions competed for power. Throughout the early 1990s, the country was led by several interim and transitional governments.

After numerous failed peace agreements, the 1995 Abuja Accord, brokered by the Economic Community of West African States, was signed. This eventually led to elections in 1997 that Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP) won comfortably despite allegations of mass murder by his forces. Under Taylor, wartime factional rivals and the free press were inhibited, and many opposition leaders fled the country. The repression culminated in another round of armed conflict that ended in 2003 with Taylor’s own flight. A transitional government supported by a United Nations peacekeeping mission was established, paving the way for multi-party elections in 2005.

The 2005 presidential election was contested by 22 candidates. Former footballer George Weah and his Congress for Democratic Change led after the first round with 28% of the vote; but in a run-off against long-time democracy activist Ellen JohnsonSirleaf of the Unity Party (UP), who had gained 19% in the first round, Weah was defeated as Johnson Sirleaf secured 59% of the vote. In 2011, she won a second term as president, comfortably defeating her run-off rival Winston Tubman after he boycotted the process, citing irregularities.

The UPs performance in legislative elections since 2005 has been less dominant. It currently holds 26 of the 73 seats in the House of Representatives and a third of those in the Senate. On all sides, elected officials are very aware of the high turnover rate. In the 2011 election, 59% of sitting members in the House of Representatives were voted out of office; and during senatorial elections held during the Ebola crisis in 2014 only two out of the 12 candidates who stood for re-election were successful.

The UP has endorsed the current vice president, Joseph Nyumah Boakai, as its presidential candidate in 2017. Despite progress made in sustaining peace and accelerating development in infrastructure, the UP is likely to face scrutiny in this election for its record on corruption and its management of the economy.

The greatest threat to the party’s continued hold on power is likely to come from the recently formed Coalition for Democratic Change, which will be led by Senator George Weah. In addition to Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change, the coalition comprises the NPP, headed by Jewel Howard-Taylor, wife of Charles Taylor, and the Liberia People’s Democratic Party (LPDP) a creation of former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler. All three parties bear defects: the NPP is still tainted by its time in power during the civil war; Tyler was removed from office on corruption charges; and Weah has done little as a senator to inspire confidence that he can deliver on his promise of change.

Ibrahim Al-bakri Nyei is a Liberian researcher, activist and political commentator.