Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Liberia: One Step Forward

Victory for incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is good news despite election boycott by her chief opponent.
By Barrett Holmes Pitner

Barret Holmes Pitner

Barrett Holmes Pitner
IWPR Contributor

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been declared winner in Liberia’s presidential election, but a boycott by her main challenger tarnished her victory and shows that democracy still has some way to go.

The second-placed candidate in the October 11 ballot was Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change, who got 33 per cent of the vote compared with Sirleaf’s 44 per cent. But Tubman boycotted the November 8 runoff, claiming electoral fraud.

This left Sirleaf as the sole candidate, and she duly won with 91 per cent of the vote

With voter turnout dropping to 38 per cent in the runoff, down from 72 per cent in the first round, Nobel Peace prizewinner Sirleaf was deprived of a convincing mandate as she started her second term.

A parliamentary election also held on October 11 did not result in a majority for any of the parties standing.

The low turn-out in the second-round presidential vote, and the lack of a majority for Sirleaf’s Unity Party, means she has an even harder task ahead of her in building a credible administration and addressing the problems of a nation still struggling to recover from the effect of prolonged civil war.

Sirleaf has promised to form an inclusive government, but observers say Liberia suffers from the same kind of inherent fragility as many emerging democracies in which individual leaders are more important than political parties.

“Here you have parties that are essentially cults of personality and those personalities are really the power brokers in Liberian politics,” international law expert John Simpkins of the Charleston School of Law in South Carolina said. “All of these figures are larger than life. They command a presence in the political arena that really outshines their party. I don’t think people really pay that much attention to the party.”

The emphasis on personality allowed Tubman to throw the election process into disarray by having his supporters abstain from voting the second time round.

One encouraging sign, however, was that the third-placed candidate, former militia leader Prince Johnson, who won 11 per cent of the vote in the first round, threw his weight behind Sirleaf. This support ensured that even if Tubman had gone head to head with the incumbent in the second round, she would still have won easily.

This move may be indicative of a desire to avoid a repetition of previous Liberian conflicts, or of the fighting in neighbouring Ivory Coast earlier this year, also prompted by disputed election results.

Other aspects of the Liberian election, the first to take place under the constitution since 14 years of war destroyed the country’s government and infrastructure, hold out hope of a new beginning.

Despite Tubman’s accusations of fraud in the first round and his stated mistrust in the national electoral body, international monitors declared the election largely fair.

“We have found almost no evidence of fraud and certainly no evidence of systematic fraud [during the election] and any irregularities are the product of running a large-scale complicated process in a post-war country,” Alex Bick, Liberia field director of the Carter Centre which helped monitor the polls, said. “On the whole, we’ve been very impressed with the electoral process.”

Another positive sign was that violent incidents were relatively rare during campaigning and the election itself. Only a handful of attacks targeting Sirleaf’s Unity Party and Tubman’s Congress for Democratic Change occurred, and two people were killed by security forces. These incidents were widely condemned, and do not appear to amount to attempts to seize power by any political force.

For a nation emerging from a decade and a half of civil war, and a youthful population more familiar with Kalashnikovs and machetes than the ballot box, a peaceful election process is progress in itself.

The fact that violence was limited and the elections generally fair is a victory for Liberia. But the leadership that has emerged from the process is still far from being on solid ground, a situation that is likely to slow progress towards a politically and economically secure future.

Barrett Holmes Pitner recently completed an editorial internship with IWPR in London.


The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.