As Liberia heads into its runoff vote this week many commentators are expecting President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to claim victory, extending her leadership for another six years. Opposition leader Winston Tubman’s decision last week to boycott the runoff, has also suggested that Sirleaf is the frontrunner. However, if she wins, her government could be perceived as lacking legitimacy, posing further challenges for Africa’s first female president. But with an opposition that lacks coherence and political parties without clear policy platforms or core principles and ideals, will Johnson Sirleaf’s victory further enhance or inhibit the development of a multiparty system in the fledgling West African democracy?
A few weeks ago, I was waiting with a group of journalists outside the house of Prince Johnson, the former warlord turned Christian evangelist turned senator, who again somersaulted into a presidential candidate. Johnson made headlines after he gained 11.6 percent of the national vote to rank third during the first round of elections, making him into the self-proclaimed “kingmaker.” He has said that he will be able to deliver Nimba and victory to Sirleaf, but at what cost is yet to be established.
After the first round of results were announced Johnson had become the Western media’s favourite sideshow, in an election that lacked the elements of a sellable African story – violence, political instability, and solid allegations of electoral fraud. An eccentric figure with a dark past and involvement in Liberia’s first civil war, Johnson is known for making outlandish and nonsensical statements that generate easy headlines for uncommitted audiences. The whimsical and ironical tone of most of the recent stories that have focused on Johnson, demonstrates a general unwillingness of reporters and media outlets to engage with the complexity of Liberia’s past and the ambiguities and shades of grey within the current political order.
As I waited to join Johnson’s motorcade of shiny black SUV’s, with 12 bodyguards, to travel his ethnic homeland and political stronghold of Nimba, I chatted with another foreign reporter about whether she would be staying for the runoff.
“It depends; maybe if it looks like she will win it won’t be so interesting,” she said.
An election without strong contenders
While Sirleaf’s victory is not a certainty, these elections – initially touted as one of the most challenging for the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate president would face – seem to have lost the key story elements that journalists are always searching for: suspense and competition.
The recent announcement by the main opposition party, the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), to boycott the runoff, coupled with the resignation of the chairman of the National Elections Commission and the party’s further demands to play a larger role in overseeing the process, have raised concerns that the November 8 runoff could become violent or that Sirleaf’s legitimacy as president could be challenged if she wins. Tubman called for a mass peaceful demonstration in Monrovia this Saturday, which failed to materialise, but this may change on Tuesday when the vote takes place.
During the lead up to the first round of elections the CDC headed by the presidential candidate, Harvard-educated formed justice minister Winston Tubman and his running mate, vice presidential candidate soccer legend George Weah, held a rally that drew tens of thousands of people, most notably young men, and choked up the streets of the capital for hours. Prior to the announcement of results and the forming of political allegiances, the CDC cast a formidable form in the capital.
The CDC has a staunch support base of young men and women, united by a love of George Weah, a dissatisfaction with President Johnson Sirleaf’s performance, and a feeling that they have been shortchanged and that her policies and leadership have done little to fundamentally improve their lives or future.
Politics without policy
In a recent interview with Winston Tubman at his home in Monrovia I asked him what his party stood for and what their key policy platforms were.
“It is a grassroots party. It is for the small man and it is to make sure his concerns are focused upon,” he said, adding that national reconciliation and youth empowerment would be key emphases.
Publicly the party’s platform is framed by criticisms of President Sirleaf’s leadership rather than a clear policy agenda or vision for the nation.
But the CDC is not the only party for whom this is the case. The main contenders did not have written policy platforms, aside from the Unity Party and the CDC, which came out with one at the last minute. At a presidential debate I attended, from which Sirleaf was notably absent, no one seemed to articulate a coherent vision for the nation, let a lone a basic blue print. Candidates only reeled out what was wrong with the country and Sirleaf’s leadership, rather than coherent strategies of how things ought to be improved.
Politics is by nature competitive and combative, and thus reactive, but what makes some democracies more substantial and vibrant than others is that parties and political figures are able to define a horizon toward which a nation can aspire and move.
The elections, the second free and fair democratic elections that Liberia has held since the end of the civil war, have lacked key elements that would make the democratic process meaningful in a deeper sense: political parties formed around ideals, coherent policy platforms, and real debates about issues that effect the lives of Liberians.
Sirleaf’s campaign with its catchy slogans embedded with images of destruction has also been reactive in that it has played on fears that the nation could fall back into the infrastructural and political anarchy of the past: ‘Monkey still working, Baboon wait small,’ or ‘When the plane hasn’t landed yet, don’t change the pilots’, and ‘So much done; So much to do; So much to lose’, or ‘Don’t play lotto with our future: Keep the Team We Know’ are pasted on billboards placed on the sides of buildings and roads. While Sirleaf emphasizes her numerous accomplishments as a stateswoman, the subtext of her overall message is clear: the past is not behind Liberians, there is still a long way to go and she is the best person for the job, a position with which some of her critics even agree.
But can’t Liberian democracy and politics aspire to more than maintaining the nation’s fragile peace and attempting to meet people’s basic needs?
Challenges for Liberian democracy
Joseph Saye Guannu, a political historian at the University of Liberia, said that part of the problem is that Liberians are only just beginning to understand the concept of democracy. Liberia, a nation established by freed slaves from America who created an apartheid state in which they ruled over the natives, was run by the True Whig Party for almost one hundred years, and then the dictator Samuel K. Doe who seized power through a coup. Multiparty democracy was officially introduced with elections in 1985, but Doe, who was elected and ruled the nation with an iron first until he was executed and the state descended into anarchy during the back-to-back civil wars that killed over 200,000 people.
Guannu said that the development of Liberia’s democracy is progressing quickly considering its political past.
“Multiparty democracy is just developing,” said Guannu, while also acknowledging the limitations of its current form.
“People vote for parties not for the principles they stand for, but for dollars and cents and the character of the leadership. All political parties in Liberia were formed by individuals who wanted to become president, but they didn’t want to become president for a cause.”
Michael Keating, director at the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Democracy and Development at the University of Massachusetts, suggests the problem lies in the absence of a real civil society or political class.
“The problem is that there is an immature political culture in Liberia,” Keating told me in a recent interview. “There is no real sense of an evolving political consciousness and there aren’t really sophisticated politicians. It is a plantation form of government – you don’t have mayors and most officials are appointed. There are few grassroots political movements and no civil society focused on developing a political class. Students are active, but align themselves with the major parties.”
The next generation
Keating anticipates that the next elections in 2017 will play a more significant role in the development of Liberia’s democracy, particularly if younger people become more politically engaged in the coming years. This year the main presidential candidates are both in their 70s and many of the 16 presidential candidates were pushing 60 and above.
“None of the other candidates were real contenders,” Keating told me. “The next election is the important one,” he said adding that it would also presumably be a greater test for Liberia, as it would be held without the support of UN peacekeepers.
When I spoke with Keating about Senator Prince Johnson’s controversial alliance with the president, he suggested that the next batch of leaders would likely bring about a much more substantive political change in Liberia.
“This whole generation of Liberian politicians has been so compromised during the crisis and none of them are without something questionable in their background,” Keating said. “They are like a dysfunctional family running the country. It’s only until they are all off the stage that Liberia can politically mature.”
But how will these new political leaders emerge and could a victory for Sirleaf further strengthen the Unity Party and narrow the playing field? Establishing a new political class in a nation where illiteracy is high and political success is in part determined by campaign cash, the amount of t-shirts you can dole out and posters you can paste on walls, the billboards you can plant on the side of roads and the political alliances you can buy, seems a tough task.
Dan Sayree the head of the Liberia Democratic Institute said that the lack of commitment within political parties and the fluidity of political alliances among party members that is common within Liberian politics, works to undermine democracy in Liberia.
“In between elections you find politicians get elected in the legislature and move onto the ruling party and it weakens the opposition,” Sayree told me. “Most people go to the ruling party.”
Sayree and the LDI are in the process of developing proposed legislation that would prohibit ‘floor crossing’ during the sitting terms of representatives, to further fortify the multiparty system. Similar legislation aided the development of multiparty democracy in Ghana, a nation that also has a history of authoritarian politics.
But Sayree thinks that the democratic developments made in Liberia in recent years have been significant and that a more sophisticated democratic consciousness amongst the citizenry will gradually emerge.
“I think public understandings about political issues and why people should get elected will be refined over time,” Sayree said. “The thinking of the public in 2005 and their thinking now has refined and there will be greater development between now and 2017.”
Liberia has come a long way politically since the end of the civil war and most international analysts have commended the peaceful manner in which the elections have played out thus far, but a lot more needs to be done to deepen its democracy. Hopefully in 2017, we will see policy platforms, parties defined by ideals instead of the men and women who head them, and visions for the future that extend beyond survival and politics that is more than just ‘monkeys versus baboons.’
Clair MacDougall is a journalist who covers West Africa and is currently in Liberia reporting on the elections. She has written for The Christian Science Monitor, The Age, Ms. Magazine, The Caravan, the Indian Express, Unleashed (ABC), and Crikey among others. She blogs about West Africa at North of Nowhere. More of her work can be found here.