Liberia: Presidential Election a Test of Democracy

Next week, Liberians head to the polls for the first presidential election since Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf assumed office in 2006 at the end of a nearly two decade-long destructive civil war. Sirleaf, widely considered to be the favorite in this campaign, is running against many other contenders, though Winston Tubman, who was elected to the leadership of the main opposition party (Congress for Democratic Change) earlier this year, seems to be the only one able to truly challenge Sirleaf’s incumbency. Tubman’s running mate is George Weah, who ran against Sirleaf in 2005 as the main opposition leader. Unlike Weah, who never received a university education, Tubman, like Sirleaf, was educated at Harvard, and, also like Sirleaf, brings international experience and leadership capacity to the table.

The road to the election has been fairly peaceful thus far. In terms of procedures and transparency, the Carter Center issued a report this week describing election campaigning in Liberia as “vibrant and generally peaceful.” While the Center makes recommendations in terms of leveling the playing field for all political parties and improving voter education and accessibility, it’s generally encouraging to see that this critical election has not been accompanied by increased tensions.

The elections provide an opportunity to consolidate the peace that Liberian citizens cherish so much“, said Ellen Margrethe Løj, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Liberia and head of the UN Mission to Liberia (UNMIL). UNMIL has drawn up election security plans in conjunction with national partners, as well as worked on contingency plans with UNOCI, the UN presence in neighboring Côte d’Ivoire. While the campaign has been peaceful thus far, Liberia is still a fragile state and, as Løj noted, “there is a tendency for elections in post-conflict countries to lead to violence.”

Nevertheless, most analysts are hopeful that this will not be the case in Liberia. The stakes are high, but an overwhelming majority of Liberians want to live in peace. It’s difficult to envisage a situation similar to what happened in Côte d’Ivoire recently, and there are few signs that the election could lead to riots or violence, though of course that cannot be ruled out.

We’ll continue to bring you updates and analysis on the situation in Liberia during this key election. Below is a PBS NewsHour report that explores the challenges of upholding democracy in a country that is still reeling from the war.