Obstacles cleared for Liberia’s runoff poll

Liberia is looking anxiously toward the country’s Nov. 8 runoff election between President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and challenger Winston Tubman.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf says she hopes for a peaceful outcome in Liberia's runoff election on November 8. She spoke to a crowd of supporters on October 15, 2011 outside offices of her party on the outskirts of Monrovia that had been set alight overnight in a suspected arson attack. (Glenna Gordon /AFP/Getty Images)

Tubman had threatened to boycott the poll, charging that the director of the National Election Commission had rigged the first-round results in favor of Johnson Sirleaf. A boycott would have created the possibility of instability in Liberia, which is still recovering from its drawn out civil war.

But the nation heaved a collective sigh of relief on Sunday when the election commission chairman James Fromayan announced his resignation, clearing the way for a successful second-round poll.

Sirleaf defeated Tubman in the first round on Oct. 11 by 44 to 32 percent, short of the 50 percent majority required for an outright victory. While Sirleaf was the expected winner of the election, it is difficult for any one candidate among 16 to achieve the required majority.

Johnson Sirleaf enters the runoff boosted by her recent Nobel Peace Prize as well as endorsements from the candidates who finished third and fourth.

Notorious former warlord Prince Johnson, who won 11 percent of the vote, voiced his support for Johnson Sirleaf. So has fourth-place finisher Charles Brumskine, who won 5.5 percent of the vote.

Independent international election observers widely hailed the first round of voting for being largely free and fair and without violence.

This is Liberia’s second presidential poll since the end of a civil war in 2003. Sirleaf Johnson won the 2005 election, defeating George Weah, who is now Tubman’s vice-presidential running mate.

It seems a strange contradiction that Prince Johnson, Liberia’s infamous rebel leader, holds the trump card in the crucial runoff election. But the results of Liberia’s first round of voting seem to testify to Liberia’s evolving democracy.

“Multi-party democracy is new to Africa and we are just trying to digest it bit by bit, we have not reached there yet,” said Emmanuel Bowier, a former minister of information in ex-president Samuel Doe’s administration.

Prince Johnson officially endorsed Johnson Sirleaf on Oct. 18, telling the BBC in an interview that she was “the lesser of two evils.” Johnson Sirleaf is now expected to prevail in a Nov. 8 runoff against Winston Tubman, a Harvard-educated former government minister and United Nations ambassador, and Weah.

Johnson Sirleaf welcomed Prince Johnson’s endorsement, as well as the support of other former rebel leaders from the war, said Wilmot Paye, spokesman of her party. “Her accepting them shows that she is a real peacemaker,” Paye told Reuters.

Prince Johnson’s endorsement represents a drastic shift from his previous position, when he told GlobalPost there was “a democratic conspiracy to vote” out Johnson Sirleaf. Now Johnson says he can’t support Tubman’s opposition Congress for Democratic Change because its leaders say they will implement a Truth and Reconciliation Commission report that recommends that both Prince Johnson and Johnson Sirleaf be barred from public office.

Some have said Johnson Sirleaf should reject Prince Johnson’s support.

“I am publicly asking President Johnson Sirleaf to publicly reject the recent presidential endorsement of warlord Prince Y. Johnson,” said Celue Doe, daughter of slain former president Doe, to the Liberian daily FrontPage Africa.

Despite the palpable tension around Liberia’s Nov. 8 runoff, it is widely expected that the vote will be as peaceful as the first round.

While some Liberians fled the country fearing violence in the Oct. 11 election — only the second since the country emerged from 14 years of civil war — many others stood under heavy rain and then an unforgiving sun in record numbers on election day, and no violence was reported. In West Point and New Kru Town, two of the capital Monrovia’s poorest communities, voters proudly displayed their voting cards and ink-stained index fingers, evidence they had cast a ballot.

During the week following the poll, around the country, Liberians — including President Johnson Sirleaf and her political opponents — put aside work to listen to the radio broadcasts of the National Election Commission’s provisional results.

With the campaign for the Nov. 8 runoff election in full gear, many Liberians and observers fear that the politics will be dominated by tribal rivalries.

The people of Grand Gedeh County still bear resentment against Sirleaf Johnson, Prince Johnson and others they see as masterminds of the war that toppled and killed their kinsman Doe.

There is also animosity between the people of Nimba and Grand Gedeh counties: Nimba County blames Doe for killing one of their sons, General Thomas Quiwonpka, after he led the failed 1985 coup against Doe. Grand Gedeh’s citizens also have not forgiven Johnson for his public torture and execution of former President Doe.

Although Liberia is Africa’s oldest independent republic dating back to 1847, its democracy is not firmly established. The nation has endured a bloody coup d’etat followed by a brutal civil war. The civil strife ended in 2005, when elections brought Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to power.

Now the Nov. 8 runoff election will test the strength of Liberia’s nascent democracy. Liberians are worried but hopeful that the runoff will be as peaceful as the first round.

“The elections were free and fair in the voting process but the counting of the ballots was not fair,” said Jonathan Koyee, a trader in Monrovia. “We are praying to God to destroy the plans of those who want to bring violence during the election and we want a free and fair election during the second round.”