Clockwise from top left: MOVEE supporters at Paynesville debate, ALP youth rally in Monrovia, UP partisans march in Bong Mines (photo credit: Nuria Sancho), CDC standard-bearer George Weah at Gbarnga rally (photo credit: Nuria Sancho), ANC supporters at Paynesville debate (photo credit: Pedro Riera), LP supporters gather the day before the arrival of their standard-bearer in Buchanan.
Political activity has stepped up in the runup to the October 10 elections, as candidates make their final push for Liberia’s presidency and 73 House of Representatives (lower house) seats.
Six candidates have so far dominated the presidential campaign: Joseph Boakai, the incumbent vice president and candidate of the ruling Unity Party (UP); Senator George Weah, standing for the Coalition for Democratic Change (CDC); Lawyer Charles Brumskine of the Liberty Party (LP); Businessman Benoni Urey of the All Liberian Party (ALP); former Coca Cola executive Alexander Cummings of the Alternative National Congress (ANC), and former Central Bank Governor, Joseph Mills Jones of the Movement for Economic Empowerment (MOVEE).
Major parties’ presidential candidates have rallied supporters in efforts to display their prominence, especially in Monrovia and urban centers around the country. Tens of thousands of people have gathered on the streets of the capital, at football stadiums, or at party headquarters. All parties’ rallies are characterized by a festive atmosphere fueled by young people, colorful paraphernalia, vehicle convoys, and blaring music.
All major party standard-bearers are now visiting outlying counties to drum up support for their candidacies as well as their parties’ local legislative candidates.
Enthusiastic attendance at rallies provides a stark contrast to quiet, sometimes empty local offices of political parties, evidence that most parties lack organization outside of their central headquarters.
The campaigns for the House of Representatives have relied more on direct outreach rather than mass rallies, with emphasis on smaller local gatherings, such as community meetings and door-to-door messaging.
While calm overall, on September 20 the campaign was marked with a violent clash between CDC and LP supporters in northeastern Nimba County when a CDC convoy reportedly attempted to drive through a gathering of partisans blocking the main road in front of the local Liberty Party headquarters. The incident was followed a few days later by a skirmish between the supporters of the CDC and Unity Party in Montserrado County (where the capital Monrovia is situated). which resulted in two critical stabbing injuries, as well as property damage. Interlocutors have expressed concern about the involvement of weapons in the clash, as well as the fact that the clash was preventable had parties complied with the requests issued by security forces to inform them in advance of their campaign plans, and also that weapons were involved. After this incident, the CDC standard-bearer condemned the election violence and asked supporters to refrain from using violence during the campaign. The Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) publicly called on the National Elections Commission (NEC) and the Liberian National Police (LNP) to take appropriate actions against violations and met privately with political parties to emphasize the importance of their commitment to the Ganta and Farmington River resolutions. The LNP investigation is ongoing.
The Nimba County clash was followed two days later by an altercation between supporters of CDC and UP legislative candidates in Montserrado County. Margibi has seen repeated clashes between partisans in the second legislative district. In Fish Town, in the southeastern River Gee County, a CDC vehicle was damaged during a rally and there were heated exchanges between legislative candidates during debates or local gatherings. In Lofa, there have been recent clashes in both District 1 between supporters of incumbent UP and challenger LP candidates, and in District 4 between supporters of incumbent UP and challenger MOVEE party candidates.
In Maryland County and northeastern Nimba County there have been reports of candidates collecting voter identification numbers from voters,which could fuel tensions among contenders. Collecting voter identification numbers is not illegal, though it is illegal to buy voter cards.
The practice of collecting voter card numbers is largely perceived as a tool to control and assess a candidate’s support. However, it could also act as a means of intimidating voters into supporting a particular candidate.
There have also been several reports of buying voter cards, a tactic for suppressing an opponent’s turnout. Other than a recent arrest in Nimba county of one individual charged with buying cards, reports are widespread but unverified.
There have been an increasing number of reports from Bong county of candidates hearkening back to the Charles Taylor era as a way to mobilize the former president’s base of support. One CDC legislative candidate said from the podium at a major rally, “Let me borrow from our former President that ‘God’s willing, I will be back’ [an infamous line from Taylor’s farewell speech as he left the country in 2003 for asylum in Nigeria] and Senator Taylor represents former Liberian President Charles Taylor on the ticket.”
Many religious leaders have played a positive role by insisting on the importance of peaceful elections. However, others have spread partisan messages. Across Liberia, interlocutors report religious and other community facilities receiving such gifts as electricity upgrades, furniture and cash from political aspirants.
Most political parties intend to deploy party agents in the polling places on election day, a program that will enable them to identify potential irregularities and independently verify polling place-level results. In collaboration with the NEC, NDI conducted a training for party managers on poll-watching best practices; these leaders, in turn, will train their supporters. A full program of poll-watchers demands a national organization and extensive resources, however, so it will be a challenge for most parties to train and deploy party agents at all 5,390 polling places.
Party agents are playing more than a self-interested role; their presence in a polling place during the voting process gives them the chance to count the number of people voting and allows them at the end of the day to compare that number with the number of ballots cast. This will be a critical check on the integrity of the system, since NEC procedures do not include the crucial step of reconciling the number of voters against the number of ballots cast.
Campaigning, Three Ways
Left to right: An incumbent distributes cash during a campaign visit to market women (photo credit: Leo Platvoet); youth parade for an independent candidate in Monrovia (photo credit: Pedro Riera); Incumbent Olu Kangbah practices 'mouth to mouth' small group campaigning under a tree in Gbaryama (photo credit: Leo Platvoet).
NEC takes aim at reducing invalid ballots
Voters examine the sample presidential ballot on a NEC 'Know Your Candidate' poster in Monrovia (photo credit: P. Riera)
The NEC has set a goal of reducing the percentage of invalid ballots by over half - from 6.4 percent during the 2011 elections to under 3 percent in the forthcoming polls.
Over 100 Liberian civil society organizations (CSOs) and community-based organizations (CBOs) are aiming to reduce the number of invalid ballots through voter education initiatives supported by the international community.
Together with the 438 civic educators and 219 gender mobilizers recruited by the NEC, they are spreading awareness throughout the counties of the steps involved in voting, the importance of women and disabled persons’ participation, and the promotion of a peaceful transition. These messages have also been shared through a series of regional consultations with traditional leaders, professional associations, and other stakeholders.
CVE activities are visible in towns, market places, and some rural areas. Educators are using theater and direct person-to-person approaches in local languages, and are often specifically targeting women and first-time voters. However, some mobilization materials, such as posters, have not yet reached all local areas. NEC civic educators and gender mobilizers have not always been able to reach the more inaccessible areas, such as the far southeastern counties, like River Gee or Maryland.
In the initial phase of the education campaign, one of the biggest gaps reported was the lack of sample ballots for teaching voters how to mark their ballot. The NEC’s new “Know Your Candidate” posters include an image of a district’s actual ballot, along with clear instructions on how to properly mark it.
According to Rosaline Toweh from the National Women’s Policy Platform committee, a group conducting voter education, “When we were out there in the field in Nimba, we found out that women had to practice several times before understanding how to mark the ballots. This is very important, because if a woman’s vote is not properly marked, there will be so many invalid ballots that a minority will end up electing the representative.” To address the identified need for basic voter education, activists held mock elections with women - as well as some men - to teach them how to vote. More than 3,000 people have taken part in these mock election training exercises.
Political parties are playing a crucial role in voter education, ensuring that their supporters know how to mark the ballot as part of their campaign activities. They have also been including messages of when, where. and how to vote.
Despite ongoing efforts to reach voters with information about how to properly mark a ballot, poll workers are receiving some mixed messages about how to determine an invalid ballot. Liberia’s legal framework aligns with the international standards and best practices that say that ‘clear voter intent’ should be the standard of determining a ballot’s validity. The NEC polling staff manual follows suit, providing a range of images ballots marked in various ways that clearly demonstrate intent. However, while some NEC election supervisor trainings use this standard, others teach that only a ballot marked with a check, an ‘x’, or a fingerprint will be counted. Given the important goal of reducing the number of invalid ballots, it is critical that fNEC trainers clearly convey the more liberal standard for evaluating ballots.
Getting ballots to polling locations is the next challenge for the NEC
Transport challenges during Liberia's rainy season include impassable roads like this one outside Zwedru (photo credit: Natasha Rothchild).
Over six million ballots - 3 million presidential ballots printed in Slovenia, plus 3.1 million House of Representatives ballots printed in Ghana - have been printed, but, as of October 2, not all legislative ballots have arrived in Liberia yet. Liberia's election administrators must now grapple with the challenge of distributing these ballots on a tight timeline.
Liberia is a small country, but the logistics required to move the election materials are complex, costly, and physically challenging. To get the job done, the NEC’s logistics plan for transporting polling materials from regional centers to polling places includes utilizing:
435 4x4 vehicles;
2055 porters to walk across terrain unsuitable for vehicles;
530 tents; and
To reach some precincts, porters will have to carry election kits and ballot papers on treks that will last for days. UNMIL has agreed to airlift sensitive election materials by helicopter to seven inaccessible parts of the country, including locations in Gbarpolu, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Lower Lofa, Maryland, Lower Nimba and River Gee counties.
But the physical distribution of election materials across Liberia is not the only challenge. The NEC must also deal with software, electronic, and legal issues for the NEC. On September 20th, the NEC announced that the Final Registration Roll (FRR) was complete and distributed electronic copies soon thereafter to political parties. The final roll totals 2,183,629 voters. This new figure reflects the conduct of a set of integrity check by the NEC, including a comprehensive manual verification of registration forms, the inclusion of 4,621 voters during the lost and damaged voters’ card replacement period, and the removal of 4,567 incidents of duplication.
Top: Liberian woman checks the posted list of polling staff in Montserrado County (photo credit: Leo Platvoet) Bottom: As part of a regional NEC training in Sanniquellie, election workers simulate voting at a mock polling station (photo credit: Nuria Sancho).
Regional NEC offices across the country have received electronic copies of the FRR but still await delivery of a printed version.
60,000 people responded to NEC recruitment ads for poll workers for over 29,000 openings. The newly-hired staff are currently being trained in how to run 5390 polling places across the country.
Given the large number of legislative candidates (983 for just 73 seats), many close contests--and accordingly, electoral complaints--are expected. To prepare for this eventuality, the NEC is hiring an additional hearing officer and clerk for each magisterial office to register complaints. A Liberian organization, The Angie Brooks International Center, worked together with the NEC in the training of magistrates to improve and strengthen their capacity to handle complaints and appeals at the county level.
Policing the hotspots
Liberian National Police keep the peace outside the presidential debate in Paynesville September 26 (photo credit: P. Riera)
Maintaining a peaceful election environment is the work of a diverse set of actors, from individual citizens who demand peace to formal institutions with the authority to convene political actors. This network of peace actors includes:
Early warning systems and violence mitigation efforts, such as the Liberia Election Early Warning and Response Group (LEEWARG), an initiative of the West Africa Network for Peacebuilding and ECOWAS, which convenes Liberian CSOs, the police and other stakeholders;
Civil society groups conducting grassroots peacebuilding exercises, especially women’s and youth organizations;
‘Grasstops’ organizations such as the InterReligious Council, the Governance Council, the Human Rights Commission and UNMIL, which use their relationships and political and moral capital to convene political actors and resolve disputes;
Political party leaders, who guide their party’s adherence to (or disregard of) the Ganta and Farmington River resolutions which called for peaceful polls; and
A range of security forces, led by the Liberia National Police (LNP).
The LNP say they view their role in this election as one of partnership with voters, parties and other electoral stakeholders. “We cannot police the election without the trust of the people,” Inspector-General of Police Gregory Coleman stated, seeking to emphasize the essence of the LNP’s community policing approach. The LNP says it views election security within a conflict prevention and mitigation framework, leading to extensive community outreach and a nationwide “Yes to Peace, No to Violence” campaign organized in partnership with civil society groups.
The LNP has stated that when it comes to potentially dangerous confrontations between political partisans it will adopt “don’t use force, show force” tactics. Senior officers say they will separate partisans and listen to their grievances, rather than simply disbursing them.
The LNP and the NEC have tried to reduce the likelihood of confrontations by asking political parties to submit plans for campaign events in advance and by asking parties to abide by a voluntary moratorium on large campaign events after October 4, when the LNP must begin deploying officers to remote locations for election duties. Very few parties, however, have submitted their campaign event schedules, and parties were unable to come to agreement on the moratorium. The violent clashes in Nimba and Montserrado counties could have been prevented with better communication from parties about their plans.
As a form of early warning, the LNP has begun organizing meetings with county commissioners, traditional authorities and other local stakeholders in bodies known as County Security Councils. These meet regularly to discuss all security related issues concerning the elections. Some of these County Security Councils have been slow to activate, while others convene stakeholders regularly and are an important venue for communication. In River Cess County, in the south central of the country, a group of volunteers, the Community Watch Forum (CWF), helps with community policing in administrative districts not covered by the LNP.
The massive deployment of officers from the LNP and other security agencies this week to polling centers caps off six weeks of police training exercises. LNP’s planning and coordination will enable them to cover the country’s 2,080 voting precincts, maintain a presence in regular police stations and secure the transport of voting materials. However, this coverage will be achieved at the cost of reducing force levels in Montserrado County, home to the capital Monrovia, where the population size, density and competitive political environment combine to make it a key electoral hotspot.
Elevating women's issues in the campaign
A woman questions candidates during a debate in Bong’s 7th Electoral District (photo credit: Nuria Sancho).
In a campaign season generally light on dealing with practical policy issues, issues specifically impacting women have been all but ignored. Nonetheless, Liberian women are playing a vital role in the election as educators, peace activists, observers, poll workers and candidates.
The national series of political debates do allow one general question for the candidates to answer on women’s issues. However, with the notable exception of the September 26 presidential debate held in Paynesville, where topics such as early marriage, gender-based violence, and gender quotas were dealt at length by the three standard-bearers present, this question is often only answered by female candidates. During the vice presidential candidates' debate in Kakata, for example, none of the candidates, who were all men, were asked any questions about issues specifically impacting women. However, a handful of local radio stations have pro-actively covered the election campaigns of female candidates and dealt with issues of interest to women in talk shows.
Against this backdrop, Liberian civil society groups are working hard to promote policy issues that impact women. Their approaches include:
A group of civil society organizations has banded together to develop and promote the Liberian Women’s Policy Platform, which highlights issues such as women’s participation in politics, health, education and security. They are traveling through all 15 counties, promoting the platform with voters and candidates alike, and conducting voter education.
At the regional level, women’s groups such as the Bassa Women Development Association have drafted their own platforms to engage candidates on issues prioritized by women in their communities, with a view to hold them accountable when elected.
Two days of debate with presidential candidates focused on women’s participation in politics and decision-making, violence against women, and other security issues before an exclusively female audience were organized by ECOWAS Women in Liberia with the Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET) at the Peace Hut in Monrovia.
Women activists at the Monrovia Peace Hut (photo credit: Sam Smoot).
Women’s groups are also playing a vital role in promoting peace. In several counties, women’s peace networks and grassroots organizations monitor violence against women with a special focus on hate speech directed against female candidates. These groups include:
The Gender Peace Network of NGOs in Grand Gedah county and activists from both SEWODA (Southeastern Women Development Association) and the Rural Women’s networks in Maryland county.
In Lofa and in Montserrado counties, UNMIL Peace Huts are organized in cooperation with WIPNET, identifying hotspots with potential for electoral violence and advocating for peace within political parties and youth groups.
The Angie Brooks International Center’s pioneering project, the Women’s Situation Room (WSR), a conflict-response mechanism aimed at mitigating violence before, during and after elections. The WSR has been successfully rolled out in seven African elections including the 2011 polls in Liberia. Eminent women from Liberia and other West African countries take hotline calls in the WSR; with representatives present in the WSR from the NEC, the LNP and immigration services, they are able to provide immediate resolution to election-related incidents. A network of 235 observers will provide a physical presence on the ground to facilitate reporting and resolution of incidents.
The Women’s National Political Forum monitors the campaigning of the 156 female candidates for the House of Representatives, guides them when they face incidents of violence and mediates to solve conflicts wherever they arise.
NDI In Liberia
NDI began working in Liberia in 1997 when it launched its first voter education and election monitoring program. Following the end of the civil war, NDI returned to Liberia and has continuously worked in the country since 2003. The Institute is currently implementing three programs funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). In addition to its international elections observation mission, NDI is supporting civil society to become more engaged in the electoral process and to provide technical assistance to all interested political parties to conduct party poll-watching and debates prior to the election. NDI previously worked with the Liberian legislature to be a more transparent and citizen-centered body by creating more entry points for citizens, and with civil society to engage in evidence-based issue advocacy and monitor the legislature’s activity. Additional information on NDI’s past and current programming can be found at ndi.org/liberia.