Democracy Takes a Step Forward in Liberia

The year 2017 was a historic one for Liberia.

“For the first time in most of their lives, Liberians saw power transfer from one democratically elected president to another,” said Jordan Ryan, vice president of the Carter Center’s peace programs. “This is something that hasn’t happened in Liberia since the 1940s. Other presidents were forced from power, died in office, or murdered in coups. This is an exciting moment for democracy in Africa.”

On Jan. 22, 2018, former soccer star George Weah was sworn in as Liberia’s new president, succeeding Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Sirleaf took office in 2005, following 14 years of brutal civil war and an interim government. She was re-elected in 2011. Liberia’s constitution limits presidents to two terms, and unlike leaders in a number of other countries in recent years, Sirleaf did not try to change the rules of the game to stay in office.

Twenty candidates – 19 men and one woman – ran to replace her.

The election was expected to be contentious. The Carter Center, at the invitation of the election commission and key political parties, launched an international observation mission.

“The Carter Center has a deeper relationship with Liberia than probably with any other country in the world,” said Jason Carter, chairman of The Carter Center Board of Trustees. “It has health programs, multiple peace programs, and has observed every election that it’s had for many years. We care a lot about the Liberian people.”

Carter, Ryan, and former Central African Republic President Catherine Samba-Panza headed the Center’s short-term delegation to the Oct. 10 election.

But the Center’s efforts actually began long before that, with assessment missions in 2016, an observation of the voter-registration process in early 2017, and the establishment of a core team of election experts and long-term observers on the ground in August 2017.

On election day itself, the Center deployed 50 observers across all 15 of Liberia’s counties. They reported seeing long lines made even longer by confusion over where to vote, but no evidence of widespread fraud or violence.

One of the people waiting in those lines was Jennivieve Smith, a 26-year-old student in Monrovia, who came to cast a vote for change.

“I’m hoping for a better future,” she said. “We need a good education, a good health center, and a peaceful environment.”

Ultimately, Weah and Vice President Joseph Boakai won the most votes and the right to compete in a runoff, which was delayed by Liberia’s Supreme Court after some parties whose candidates finished behind Weah (including Boakai’s own ruling party) filed suit, alleging fraud.

The delay made an already jittery population even more anxious, as some worried that democracy – and peace – could be in jeopardy.

But the Supreme Court ultimately found no evidence of problems significant enough to affect the election results. On Dec. 26, Liberians again went to the polls, choosing Weah as their next leader.

The Carter Center deployed 45 observers for the runoff, this time led by Ryan and Aminata Touré, former prime minister of Senegal. They found the process to be generally well-conducted, though they offered some recommendations for improvement.

“There are things that Liberia can do to make its next election cycle more fully democratic,” Ryan said. “But Liberians should be commended for carrying out this election process peacefully. The election was an important step for the country, and The Carter Center is looking forward to continuing to work with Liberians to build a better future.”

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