Liberia: Tense Run-Off Election Tomorrow

The political drama surrounding the presidential election in Liberia reached fever pitch last Friday. Winston Tubman, from the opposition party Congress for Democratic Change, announced that  he would not participate in the second round of the presidential election, slated to take place on Tuesday November 8th.

Ever since the first round in October, Mr. Tubman has been crying foul, claiming that results were tampered with and that the election was rigged in favor of his opponent, incumbent Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. The election was described by international observer missions as peaceful, credible and transparent, and, so far, none of the allegations put forth by the CDC and Tubman that major breaches occurred have been proven. The international community – including the regional organization ECOWAS  – regret Tubman’s decision not to participate in the run-off. Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, noted in a statement today that “[his] action deprives Liberians of the choice they deserve and weakens rather than strengthens the democratic process.”

Following the first round, where former warlord Prince Johnson placed third behind Sirleaf and Tubman, the focus was on how Johnson would essentially be in a “king maker” position, depending on which candidate he threw his weight behind. Interestingly, he chose to call for his supporters to vote for Sirleaf, as Tubman’s call for investigations into war crimes perpetrated during the war was a deal-breaker for Johnson. With Johnson’s votes from the first round, Sirleaf would have been all but guaranteed a victory in the second round, even with Tubman’s participation.

Tubman has vigorously accused the National Elections Commission (NEC) of corruption and of partiality, and repeatedly asked for its Chairman, James Fromayan. Mr. Fromayan resigned last week, in a move he claimed was to ensure he was not an “obstacle” to the run-off. While Tubman initially welcomed the move and announced that he would no longer boycott tomorrow’s run-off, he since changed his mind. On Friday, he asked his supporters not to go to the polls and said he would not recognize the new government.

According to Tubman, going ahead with the poll while key issues remain unsolved undermines Liberia’s democratic process. While this may be true, it is far more dangerous for Liberian democracy to have a run-off election without a main opposition candidate – if the vote goes ahead without Tubman and Sirleaf wins, she will have to contend with a difficult mandate, one that will be constantly challenged.

As I write this, a large group of  Tubman supporters are gathered in front of the party headquarters to protest what they consider an illegitimate election. On Twitter, reports of shots being fired between protesters and police are going around. This election is a key one for Liberia, a true test of their democracy. The first round of the election showed that Liberians are eager to participate in a functional and genuine democracy. The second round, however, will be more contentious.