Liberia’s general elections, a litmus test

On 10 October, Liberians will elect their next president and two legislative chambers in a watershed election with a potential for reigniting old grievances. The incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is stepping down in accordance with the constitution which limits her to two six-year terms in office. However, there is no clear winning candidate on either side of the ruling party or the opposition, suggesting the election will be open to some surprises which will likely be determined in a run-off between the two main contenders.

While it is clear that this year’s elections will be highly competitive, they will also be a litmus test for Liberian security forces, who for the first time since the end of the civil war in 2005 will manage state security without major support from the international community; the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) officially began drawing to a close last July, with a complete exit planned to be finished by March 2018. The scale-back, which was premature in some respects, could leave a power vacuum which local actors could attempt to tap into.

Warlords, footballers and the unknown

Liberians are currently facing a highly fragmented political playing field for the 73-seat lower house and 30-seat Senate, increasing the likelihood that no candidate gets an absolute majority plus one vote, meaning a run-off is almost certain. About 20 candidates have been confirmed to be running for the presidency, and 986 candidates are running for the House of Representatives, the lower house.

Vice President Joseph Boakai won the premiership of the ruling Unity Party (U.P.) in April amid intense infighting and divisions in the party. The former chairman of the U.P., Varney Sherman, is not running following allegations of corruption resulting from a major leak of classified documents by British transparency campaigner Global Witness which suggested that he was involved in high-level corruption involving a British iron ore mining firm. Boakai has named the speaker of the House of Representatives, Emmanuel Nuquay, as his running mate. While Boakai enjoys a ‘pseudo-incumbency’ from his vice-presidential post and position in the ruling party, his main challenge will be to crystallise the U.P.’s support base, not least following a lukewarm endorsement in March of his candidacy by Johnson Sirleaf, after some disagreement over his chosen running-mate. Given that Nuquay was initially not among Boakai’s top five candidates, it is probable that the president exerted some level of influence over the appointment.

Boakai’s main challenger is likely to be George Weah, a former Liberian national football player who has been a frontrunner politician since the first presidential elections in 2005. He runs for the opposition party, Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), and is running with the former wife of convicted warlord Charles Taylor, Jewel Howard Taylor, as his running mate. While being able to garner support in the populous south-western Bong and Montserrado counties – the latter includes the capital Monrovia – Weah is less likely to win enough support in other remote areas of the country to make him a clear lead contender; this was a key reason for his 2005 loss against Johnson Sirleaf. There have also been public discussions about the possibility that Boakai and Weah co-operate in the elections, although so far no agreement has been reached. Charles Brumskine, the leader of the opposition Liberty Party (L.P.), is the third main candidate set to get enough votes for a second round. Brumskine ran in both previous polls, but failed to seriously challenge Johnson Sirleaf in the last one in 2011. Prince Johnson, a former warlord, of the opposition Movement for Democracy and Reconstruction (MDR) will continue to wield significant control over the north-eastern Nimba County, which holds significant untapped iron ore deposits which have been fought over by international mining firms.

Newer candidates will not be able to gain enough support to reach the presidency, but they will become central in this year’s election as they will be courted by leading candidates looking to form political alliances to secure an absolute majority. This means there will be room for political bartering and alliance building between the two rounds as well as after a run-off, which will create an uncertain policy environment for businesses over the next six years, and some alliances will break. This is could also reignite old demons, as some candidates are calling for prosecution of individuals who were central in the civil war, or corruption probes into high-ranking politicians.

The political alliances will become clearer after the first round. For instance, if the U.P. leads after the first round of voting, it is possible that opposition parties rally behind the opposition candidate in exchange for positions or funding in their respective constituencies over the next six-year term. However, L.P. and CDC supporters fought each other on 20 September, leaving at least two people seriously wounded during a rally in the northern town of Sanniquellie City, Nimba County, in what was the first incident of violence in this year’s campaign. As political parties intensify their campaign rallies over the next two weeks, it is likely that further incidents of fighting between political supporters could erupt.

Growing uncertainty on the horizon

While the number of candidates in this year’s elections is likely to increase policy uncertainty in the short term, so does the candidates’ lack of original policy responses to the country’s economic and geopolitical challenges. All candidates run on similar platforms, promising to reduce unemployment particularly among the youth, to tackle corruption and governance deficits, and improve infrastructure and service delivery of local governments. The high number of candidates for the legislature could almost entirely renew the two chambers, meaning that businesses will be exposed to many new and less-experienced stakeholders. This is likely to increase the public affairs challenges that businesses looking to set up operations in Liberia face.

Furthermore, the highly fragmented political environment could also lead to a more volatile security environment, not least in the absence of UNMIL support. In July 2016, UNMIL withdrew most of its several thousand military personnel and law enforcement officers, leaving a little over 1,840 security forces in the country. The peacekeeping mission comprised over 15,000 in-country staff at the beginning of the mission in 2006. Although the scale-back has been progressive over the past decade, the power vacuum that the international peacekeeping force leaves behind could become subject to increased competition over political power and access to land, which could translate into violence.

Last year, a survey by Catholic Relief Services, a U.S.-funded humanitarian relief organisation, suggested that underlying issues from the war could reignite grievances; political actors taking part in the peace process tended to favour peace and reconciliation over prosecution of criminal acts committed during the conflict as both sides were considered equally responsible. Chief among these issues is the high level of youth unemployment. To Liberian older youths who grew up and partook in the civil strife, hardly any of whom have received appropriate schooling or training afterwards, the lack of employment opportunities could create desperate situations, pushing ex-combatants into criminality to make ends meet. That is likely to further increment security risk, particularly in urban areas, including the capital Monrovia, where many of the youths live.

Furthermore, while almost two decades of fighting had destroyed many of the governance structures in place – Liberia was at the end of the 1980s considered a rising star on the continent – the 2014 Ebola epidemic, again decimated the country’s healthcare infrastructure, which continues to face serious challenges of funding and skills gaps.

Forecast

While the upcoming Liberian elections in mid-October will see the incumbent president hand over power, the number of candidates looking to replace her is increasing political uncertainty, which could translate into a more volatile security situation. No clear candidate looks likely to win an outright majority in the first round; a balkanised political playing field will give room for intense negotiations and horse trading, leaving no clear policy line in place.

 

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