Liberian Presidential Elections are a Chaotic But Peaceful Transfer of Power. Here’s What You Need to Know

Liberia is going to the polls today to elect a new president. With no incumbent – Nobel peace prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the current president, is finishing her second term – this vote presents an opportunity for Liberia to affirm its democratic ideals.

From massive rallies and daily marches to intense political infighting, Liberian electoral politics are signs of a vibrant and sometimes chaotic democracy, finding its footing after decades of war and reconstruction.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf made history ten years ago as Africa’s first elected female head of state. She will make history again when she hands over power to the winner of these elections.  After suffering from a brutal civil war at the turn of the 21st century, these elections will mark the first peaceful transfer of power in modern Liberia.

The election by the numbers

The field is wide open – and busy – in this historic presidential election. In addition to 2o presidential candidates, there are also 983 candidates from 26 political parties vying for 73 House seats. Liberians have always been politically active, and it’s no surprise that over two-thirds of the eligible population of 4.6 million is registered to vote. Even better news for Liberian democracy is that women make up 48% of registered voters. Voters are casting their ballots in 5,390 polling centers in 2,080 districts, with the oversight of 17,000 poll workers. In an effort to conduct effective voter outreach and mobilize participate, the National Election Commission of Liberia has put in place a special SMS system that allows any Liberian voter to obtain voting information by text message. The campaign period has been marked by rambunctiousness and punctuated by large rallies – organizers of a pre-election rally for one of the top contenders for the job, international soccer star George Weah, estimated that 150,000 supporters came out for their candidate.

MacDella Cooper rally. Credit: MacDella Cooper campaign

“Liberians want it to be stable”

A small territory founded by freed American slaves, Liberia’s history is fraught with intense political conflict. A protracted war, keeping Liberia insecure and underdeveloped for decades, from the early 80s to the early 2000s, has left Liberians faced with the monumental task of rebuilding an entire society – political, social, economic – with limited resources and chronically malfunctioning institutions. The Ebola crisis of 2014 dealt a serious blow to this progress. Liberia’s health infrastructure was decimated by the crisis, including losing 8% of its health workers. Corruption scandals, despite the introduction of transparency mechanisms, have also plagued the country for years. The corruption landscape in Liberia is compounded by the fact that corruption happens both at the top-levels of the political echelon – all the way down to the bottom, where public servants with meager salaries “creatively” find ways to extract money from regular people. In addition to corruption, the slow pace of rebuilding infrastructure, a school system that is able to function only when it’s outsourced to private actors, and youth unemployment are some of the critical issues Liberia must address.

Still, Liberia has made huge progress since the war. Successful enterprises have been built, and a healthy media environment – where political disagreements play out daily – is in place. Culturally and socially, women – who played such a critical role in helping to bring about peace negotiations to end the war – are becoming increasingly engaged, active and successful. A thriving civil society, with an abundance of non-profit groups and collectives, is well-established. And while it isn’t perfect, Liberia’s outsourced educational system is improving educational outcomes for Liberian students.

Yet, many Liberians have a distrust of their leaders and politicians, and Liberians are expressing hope for a new president who will find ways to seriously tackle the many, complex challenges the country faces. While their choices – a former soccer star, an establishment figure from the current administration, a smattering of politicians including some associated with former president and strongman Charles Taylor – don’t reflect a clean break with a shady past, the fact that this presidential election has remained free of major incidents, despite the factors at play that could trigger a crisis of confidence, is a testament to Liberians’ desire for a meaningful democratic exercise. “This campaign so far has been stable because Liberians want it to be stable,” Dan Saryee, a political analyst and the former director of the Liberia Democracy Institute told the Christian Science Monitor.

Run-Off Likely

There are 20 candidates running for president, reflecting the diversity, vitality  and intensity of Liberian political life. There is no clear front runner in this crowded field. Winning in the first round with an absolute majority is an unlikely scenario for any of the top contenders, including “Oppong,” George Weah’s soccer nickname, and Sirleaf’s vice-president of 11 years Joseph Boakai. Among the candidates, only one is a woman, MacDella Cooper – a former model turned philanthropist.

Today’s election should reveal the two front-runners who will have to fiercely battle it out in anticipation of the second round. Initial results are expected by mid-week.

Related: New York Times Journalist Helene Cooper discussed the Liberia elections in a recent podcast episode