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John Stremlau Op-Ed: Partners Crucial to Nurturing Liberian Democracy

This op-ed by John Stremlau was published in Business Day.

Liberia's fragile democracy suffered several setbacks surrounding last week's presidential run-off that are typical of many post-conflict African countries.

Liberia's initial round of voting on October 11 reduced the presidential field from 16 candidates to two. Incumbent Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's 43,9% was short of the majority needed to win but had a good lead over runner-up Winston Tubman's 32,7%. In the legislative races, with winners needing only pluralities, seven parties, including Tubman's, won seats, plus a dozen independents, another positive sign of Liberia's democratic development. Voter turnout was 71,6%.

On November 5, Tubman announced his party would boycott the November 8 presidential run-off. He announced a peaceful rally of debatable legality on election eve, demanding the vote be postponed. United Nations forces had to intervene to stop Liberian police from firing on the demonstrators. Voter turnout the next day was only 38,6%. Johnson-Sirleaf won 90,7%, with the rest for Tubman, suggesting she held her base and gained votes from the smaller parties.

International observers deemed the electoral process in both rounds to be transparent and credible. The legitimacy of her election is beyond doubt. Yet Tubman continues to reject the result, reflecting his frustration and the social discontent among those who have yet to benefit from the peace and growing prosperity of Johnson-Sirleaf's first term.

Opposition parties in Liberia coalesce around personalities, not programmes. Tubman, a Harvard-educated nephew of a former president, and his much younger running mate, former soccer star George Weah, joined forces in what they saw as an unbeatable combination. But they underestimated the power of incumbency, which Johnson-Sirleaf used to outspend and restrict her opponents' campaigns. She also mounted Liberia's first modern national campaign, receiving more first- round votes than Tubman in 12 of the country's 15 counties.

Failing to win on the strength of their personalities, Tubman and Weah attacked the process as fraudulent but without giving credible evidence. The presence of their party agents in virtually all polling stations, the acceptance of the results by those in their party who won legislative elections, and the validation of the process by hundreds of impartial election observers undermined the credibility of their claims. The decision to boycott seemed to reflect a party without principles and no plan to become a viable opposition with a hope for future victory.

Yet the weakness of the incumbency also became painfully evident on November 7, when police opened fire on the demonstrators and had to be restrained by UN peacekeepers. Tubman's claim that this was an assassination attempt ordered by Johnson-Sirleaf makes no sense as she was assured of victory and barely a month from receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. The reality is of a police force underfunded, undertrained and overly eager to assert control. This action, which killed at least three and nearly felled Tubman, brought sudden sympathy for the faltering opposition, which to its credit also made no effort to disrupt the November 8 voting.

The main measure of Johnson-Sirleaf's first term has been economic reconstruction, recovery and debt relief. Her second term must focus much more on national reconciliation, especially with the third of Liberians who voted for Tubman and Weah. She has already appointed a committee of inquiry into the causes of violence on November 7 and with video evidence of police brutality globally available, the successful prosecution of the guilty looms as her next major test. She has also asked her fellow Nobel laureate, Leymah Gbowee, to lead a commission for national reconciliation. These actions are promising, but there are unresolved issues surrounding the 2009 findings of Liberia's truth and reconciliation process, which shadows today's promises.

For those who still regard democracy as the only basis for human development in Africa, Liberia is a reminder that progress requires partnerships. Had the UN not been present, peace would not have prevailed. If impartial election observers had not been able to credibly challenge claims of fraud, the legitimacy of Liberia's fledgling democracy would have faltered. And international organisations helping advance the rule of law, access to information and educational reform remain vital. Liberians, after all, share universal aspirations.

John Stremlau, vice president in charge of peace programs at the Carter Center in Atlanta, observed the elections.

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