Last Updated: Friday, 22 August 2014, 15:07 GMT

Do Liberians know what they're voting for?

Publisher Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)
Publication Date 5 August 2011
Cite as Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), Do Liberians know what they're voting for?, 5 August 2011, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4e40e56f2.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In two weeks Liberians will vote in a referendum to change four aspects of the constitution, following which they will vote in presidential and legislative elections in October or November, depending on the outcome of the referendum.

Speaking to Liberian market-sellers, students, politicians, governance experts, corruption-fighters, and civil society representatives, it is clear that while most support free, fair and transparent elections, many Liberians are yet to experience the dividends of peace: better education, running water, affordable food are out of reach for many - and politicians need to listen to their needs.

The issues to be addressed in the 23 August referendum are: pushing national elections from October to November 2011; shortening the residency requirement for presidential and vice-presidential candidates from 10 to five years; shifting the requirement for election for all candidates other than the president from an absolute to a simple majority; increasing the mandatory retirement age for all justices from 70 to 75.

Critics say voters have not been sufficiently informed of what the referendum is all about, and that it is overly ambitious to hold one in an election year. Jerome Verdier, chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, told IRIN: "You are holding two elections - because the referendum is like an election - just about the same time under an institution that doesn't seem to have the full capacity to conduct these processes, especially almost simultaneously. That is a recipe for conflict, for confusion, for chaos."

Opposition parties have voiced concerns over the past few months that clauses in the referendum are designed to favour the ruling Unity Party and sideline some contenders.

Compelling people to vote for issues rather than people, is always a challenge, says Joe Pemagbi, Liberia coordinator for civil society research group the Open Society Institute (OSIWA). This is particularly the case when 40 percent of citizens are illiterate, and the average adult has had just four years of schooling, according to the UN.

Jackson Speare, head of peace-building organization International Alert, in Monrovia, told IRIN: "It is difficult to explain the proposals, even to the educated… Even in Monrovia, I don't think many persons know about the referendum… What is it? What are the positions?... Why is this referendum important before the election? People need answers to all those questions."

National Elections Commission chairman James Fromayan admitted it would be hard for some Liberians to engage in the referendum process, but civic education teams are doing as much as they can to inform the electorate. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) just contributed $500,000 towards this, he said.

Civic education is equally needed to engage Liberians in the subsequent elections, said Eddie Jarwolo, head of civil society group National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections (NAYMOTE). "People are not linked to development issues in this country; they feel it's a waste of time for them," he said. NAYMOTE is trying to raise awareness of who is who and what is what, in the elections, using local radio to spread the word.
The presidential contest is currently personality rather than issues-driven, he said, and that needs to change.

Electoral contenders

President Sirleaf's main contenders are the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) made up of Winston Tubman (nephew to William Tubman, Liberia's longest-serving president) and ex-FIFA footballer of the year George Weah, who lost out to President Sirleaf in 2005.

Also gaining strength are Liberty Party candidates: politician and attorney Charles Brumskine, and Bong County Senator Franklin Siakor.

Notable among other contenders is former rebel leader and warlord Prince Johnson, who was listed as requiring trial for war crimes in the controversial 2009 Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) report. The report also recommended President Sirleaf be barred from future office given her alleged early financial support of Charles Taylor.

President Sirleaf will be running for the Unity Party alongside vice-presidential candidate Joseph Boakai.

Chelsea Payne, head of human rights and democracy-building non-profit The Carter Center in Liberia, told IRIN: "The best way to get people involved is to go out and tell them what this election is all about. But that is hard - in the southeast there is hardly any radio, even. Some people see their vote as being more useful to people in power than to themselves."

Liberians need to be made aware that this election is about them, and the issues that they care about, said International Alert's Speare. Youths need to be engaged in national debates, rather than manipulated by political parties to wreak havoc during voting procedures, as has often been the case in the past, he said.

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