Liberia will hold its presidential election next week

Youth supporters campaign for soccer legend Sen. George Weah, Liberian presidential candidate, during a rally in Monrovia, Liberia in August 2017. Weah and Joseph Boakai will face off in the final election round, now scheduled for Dec. 26. (Ahmed Jallanzo/EPA)

After a delay of over a month, Liberia will move ahead and hold a runoff presidential election on Dec. 26. The contest pits George Weah, a retired soccer star and junior senator, against Joseph Boakai, septuagenarian vice president. Boakai was outpolled in the first round in October and appears to be the underdog.

Originally slated for Nov. 7, the second round of balloting was delayed following an unsuccessful judicial challenge by the Liberty Party, whose candidate, Charles Brumskine, alleged fraud, and finished a distant third with less than 10 percent of the vote.

An elected president has not transferred power to another in Liberia since 1944.

This is an important milestone in Liberia’s democratic transformation since the end of civil war in 2003. The great challenge, as Liberian politician and academic Amos Sawyer noted in 2005, is shifting the country’s political mind-set from “zero-sum politics to one that embraces tolerance, accommodation and coalition-building.”

Neither candidate matches the gravitas of Liberia’s outgoing leader, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Africa’s first elected female president. Some wonder if Weah is under the sway of disgraced former president and rebel leader Charles Taylor after Weah selected Taylor’s ex-wife, Sen. Jewel Howard Taylor, as his running mate. To a lesser degree, Boakai has been tarnished by Sirleaf’s reluctance to campaign actively on his behalf.

Much of the discussion around Liberia’s democracy-building efforts has been pessimistic. But there is tentative evidence that Liberia’s political class, including opposition members, are gradually embracing Sawyer’s recommendation and redefining the nation’s political culture.

Although President Sirleaf warned that the Liberty Party’s allegations of electoral fraud (which were supported by her own party) were an “assault” on Liberia’s democracy, other analysts noted that recourse to the courts and the peaceful resolution of the case actually marked a new chapter in the consolidation of the nation’s nascent democracy.

Cross-party endorsements are important to a young democracy.

Last year, 16 opposition political parties, including Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change, issued the Ganta Declaration, a statement of intent to “consolidat[e] a common approach to foster and guard our fledgling democracy.” While the parties did not ultimately move beyond this initial communique to enter the election in any form of broad-based coalition, the effort represented a significant advance from the internecine violence of the 1990s.

A major player in that violence was Sen. Prince Johnson, who convened the Ganta summit. Johnson was once aligned with Charles Taylor, but the two split in the early stages of the war and Johnson gained notoriety for presiding over the murder of Samuel Doe, the Liberian president who himself came to power via a bloody coup.

Johnson polled fourth in the October election and subsequently announced that he will respect the spirit of the Ganta Declaration and back Weah in the second round. Johnson’s backing was critical to Sirleaf’s 2011 reelection — though his previous endorsement for Weah in 2005 was ineffective. While the continued political relevance of actors with ties to the 1989 to 2003 civil war stokes concerns from many quarters, political scientists see cross-party endorsements as a critical step in the consolidation of democratic institutions.

The Weah-Taylor ticket represents a major political realignment in Liberia and a partial fulfillment of the Ganta Declaration. The alliance, the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC), consists of three constituent political parties: Weah’s Congress of Democratic Change, Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP), and the newly formed Liberia People’s Democratic Party, led by embattled former speaker of the House of Representatives, Alex Tyler.

Boakai and the ruling Unity Party (UP) have also made rocky strides to surmount Liberia’s fractured political landscape, home to more than 20 registered parties. The UP was bolstered by a major merger in 2009 which brought in elements that endorsed Weah in the 2005 runoff. Sirleaf’s reticence aside, the UP presidential campaign this year was also strengthened by an unexpected level of consensus. Boakai had a relatively straightforward run to the nomination and he received the endorsement of two-thirds of the Liberian legislature. The UP also collaborated with several opposition parties in the recent legal challenge against the conduct of the National Elections Commission.

Weah has broad support.

Weah received significant support from Doe at the beginning of his football career and has remained popular within the political constituencies of the late president. In the 2005 election, Weah’s running mate was Doe’s former foreign minister and Weah campaigned in Doe’s home county, Grand Gedeh, with the late leader’s sister. In 2011, Weah ran as vice president behind Doe’s justice minister. In both campaigns, Weah’s ticket dominated Grand Gedeh.

Despite his alliance with Jewel Howard Taylor, Weah retained strong support in Grand Gedeh — he took 75 percent of the vote there in a crowded field of 20 candidates in the first round of voting in October. Weah came out on top in 11 of Liberia’s 15 counties. In seven counties, including the capital Monrovia, home to a third of the electorate, he outpolled Boakai by more than 20 percent.

Weah’s CDC has fitfully become more inclusive with each successive election. In 2005, he ran on an anti-elite platform, emphasizing the failure of educated leaders while Jewel Taylor endorsed Sirleaf. This changed in 2011, when Harvard-educated Winston Tubman led the party’s ticket and the CDC entered into a nebulous trial partnership with the NPP.

Sirleaf’s departure won’t necessarily mean an absence of women in leadership.

If Weah, a high school dropout, is elected, his running mate Jewel Taylor, a former chair of the University of Liberia’s Board of Trustees who holds degrees in law and banking, will be viewed as the brains of the executive. Jewel Taylor is not simply a pawn of her former husband, as a New York Times editorial implied in 2006.

Jewel Taylor has been condemned for supporting legislation criminalizing homosexuality, but she was also instrumental in passing legislation to establish West Africa’s first freedom of information act and a code of conduct for civil servants. With Jewel Taylor and Munah Pelham-Youngblood, a youthful representative for a district in the capital, the CDC arguably has two of Liberia’s most prominent female politicians.

Whatever the outcome, this election is an important break from the past.

The two candidates mark a significant shift from the traditional elite that has long dominated Liberian politics. In 2005, four of the top five presidential candidates were linked with the historic Americo–Liberian ruling class. In the 2011 runoff election, both candidates were connected to the group.

But the next president of Liberia will either be from the rural interior (Boakai), or a crowded Monrovia township (Weah). Whoever triumphs, their origins will align more closely with the masses than any prior chief executive — with the exception of Samuel Doe.

Doe’s regime descended into disaster after a brief honeymoon period and many expect the same under Weah. However, Doe’s descent was accompanied by the promotion of his ethnic group at the expense of others. While this election cycle has been rife with political opportunism — elements in the Liberty Party recently announced their support for the CDC; the number of cross party collaborative efforts and Weah’s increasingly inclusive approach since he joined politics more than a decade ago give reason for cautious optimism in this young democracy.

Brooks Marmon is a PhD student in African studies at the University of Edinburgh. He tweets @AfricaInDC.

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