Politics

Incumbent Wins Re-election in Liberia After Opposition Boycotts

 

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MONROVIA, LIBERIA – The response to the final election results tallied Tuesday confirming the re-election of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been tepid in Liberia. While her supporters say continuity means progress, others say that the elections weren’t legitimate because the opposition party boycotted the second vote.

None of the candidates received an absolute majority – more than 50 percent – in the initial elections in October, which led to a runoff last Tuesday between the top two candidates, Sirleaf of the ruling Unity Party and Winston Tubman of the Congress for Democratic Change party. The opposition party boycotted the runoff because of allegations that Sirleaf rigged the first vote.

Lillian Jalo, a supporter of the Unity Party, says she is excited that Sirleaf, the only female president in Africa, won re-election.

“I am happy the president won this elections,” she says. “This is a boost for the country and women as a whole.”

Wesley George, also a supporter of the Unity Party, says continuity matters. Another supporter, Gifty Morgan, agrees, saying that the president can finish during her second term all the road and school projects that she started during her first term.

“Now that the president has won, all of the roads that were not completed will be completed,” she says.

But others say the results aren’t legitimate.

Participating in a Congress for Democratic Change rally on Monday, Gwejelo Toe says he is disappointed that the president won.

“She didn’t deserve it,” he says.

Another supporter of the opposition party, Robert, a young student who declined to give his last name, says he is also disappointed that his party didn’t win.

“We needed change,” he says. “I prefer Ambassadors Tubman and [his running mate George] Weah because they represent the dreams and aspirations of us young people.”

Looking tired in his school uniform, Robert says he saw his future as bright under the Congress for Democratic Change leadership.

“Things would have been better for Liberians if my party would have won,” he says.

Partisans of the Unity Party have remained quiet, and there have not been many celebrations, compared with the first round of elections. Sirleaf has not dwelled on her victory but rather has been preaching messages of reconciliation and extending an olive branch to the opposition, who say they were marginalized and cheated during the election process. Sirleaf has denied these allegations.

Nearly half the voters in the first election last month didn’t return to participate in the runoff last week, with Liberians divided on partaking in what many called a one-horse race. Energy and enthusiasm were markedly higher surrounding the first vote, but the opposition party boycotted the runoff because it alleged that the initial election had been rigged in favor of the incumbent president. Before, during and after the elections, many Liberians say the main issue for them in this election has been maintaining peace.

Sirleaf won more than 90 percent of the votes, according to the National Elections Commission. Tubman, whose party boycotted the runoff, received less than 10 percent. Less than 40 percent of the population voted in the runoff. More than 70 percent had participated in the first vote, with Sirleaf earning about 44 percent of the votes and Tubman gaining about 33 percent.

Voter turnout was poor compared with the first round of elections, as many people say they were unenthusiastic about the process because the opposition boycotted the polls.

Mercy Greaves, a young voter, says she didn’t have any interest in participating in the second vote because it was a one-horse race after the opposition’s boycott.

But others say it was important to vote regardless.

Edmond Boakai, a young journalist voting this year in his first elections, says he was one of the first people to vote in the runoff last Tuesday. He says he cast his ballot for “Mama Liberia” and not for a particular candidate.

“For me, I turn out to vote because I love my country,” he says.

A supporter of the ruling Unity Party, Boakai says that he is happy about the election overall. But he says that there was more energy surrounding the first vote, when people were campaigning and there was competition.

Still, the second vote was far from dull. Several people died in riots, and the government also closed some radio stations run by the opposition that it alleged had been spreading hate messages. The courts have since reopened the radio stations.

Boakai says that voting in the runoff meant voting for his future. But more Liberians shared his sentiment back in October, when the initial elections were held.

“I am happy to be voting in this elections,” Adella Zayzay, a young Liberian woman, said last month.

On Oct. 11, Liberians like Zayzay braved the rain to vote in what many term as Liberia’s most historic elections in decades. It was the first consecutive elections in post-war Liberia, with Sirleaf winning the initial contest in 2005. Many observers say this made it a turning point in the country’s history.

Many say this was also the election with the highest number of female presidential candidates. They included Sirleaf, Gladys Beyan of the Grassroot Democratic Party of Liberia and Cecelia Ndebe of the Liberia Reconstruction Party.

But none of the 16 candidates received an absolute majority on the first ballot, requiring a runoff between the two candidates who received the greatest numbers of votes under Article 83b of the Liberian Constitution.

For many Liberians, their main concern for this year’s election was the maintenance of peace and reconciliation after nearly 15 years of civil war that ended in 2003 after claiming more than 200,000 lives.

Jalo, a social worker voting in her second elections, says she has never been more enthusiastic about the process. She says she is a strong supporter of Sirleaf because of her commitment to peace and democracy.

“The issues most important to me in this elections is maintenance of peace and democracy, and I believe the president can provide that,” she says.

Sonie Doe, a Liberian journalist, says she agrees on the prioritization of peace – but not on the candidate best-suited to ensure it. She says she supports the opposition because she prefers peace and justice, adding that Sirleaf supported the war.

“For me, I believe that the only way this country will go forward is when we set up a justice system to try all those who supported the conflict in this country,” she says.

Sirleaf established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC, to investigate the civil war. But the final TRC report included her on a list of 50 people it recommended should be banned from public office for 30 years for being associated with former warring factions. Sirleaf said she had supported former President Charles Taylor before realizing his involvement in the war.

“I’m supporting the president because she doesn’t support the TRC report,” says Prince Johnson, the presidential candidate who came in third in the October elections and was also on the TRC’s recommended ban list.

Justice was one of the platforms the opposition campaigned on. It won them some supporters who demand justice be served but drove away others who say the only thing Liberia needs now is reconciliation.

Other Liberians say they were voting based on the candidates’ relationships with the West.

A day before the first elections, Sirleaf was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with two other women. Many of her supporters say they saw this as the icing on the cake for her re-election and as a sign that the West has ordained her.

But supporters of the main opposition party say they saw her Nobel Peace Prize as a conspiracy by the West to influence Liberians to vote for her. Tubman, a former U.N. diplomat, said on the day that Sirleaf received the prize that she didn’t deserve it.

“She didn’t deserve it, and, on the contrary, the president has never contributed to peace in the country,” he said.

Other Liberians said they saw the runoff as a gender race since it was male versus female. Overall, women make up a large percentage of Sirleaf’s main support base. They say she has empowered them and has improved gender equity in Liberia.

“It’s because of the president we have all these opportunities as women,” says Morgan, a sociologist.

But it wasn’t a gender race for everyone.

Love Tarpeh, a young accountant, says she supports the main opposition party led by Tubman because it represents the interests of ordinary Liberians like her.

“I feel the Unity Party is a party for elites,” she says.

While women like Tarpeh support the opposition, there are also men who support Sirleaf.

George, a media expert, says he is a Sirleaf supporter.

“The elections mean a lot me because it will bring about economic development for the people of Liberia,” he says.

Barely a week before the runoff, the main opposition threatened to not partake in it if its demands weren’t met. Acarous Gray, secretary-general of the party, said that one of the party’s top demands was the resignation of the head of the National Elections Commission because it said he supported the ruling party led by Sirleaf.

As a result of this pressure, James Fromayan, chairman of the National Elections Commission, resigned on Oct. 30. He said it was in the interest of the Liberian people. But the opposition still boycotted.

Some supporters of the opposition are now calling for the resignation of Sirleaf. Toe says he wants the president to step down at all costs because he says she rigged the elections. 

“My party has evidences of fraud,” he says. “We will not accept the results unless the president steps down.”

But unlike Toe, Robert, also a supporter of the opposition party, says it’s best to let the president remain in office in order to keep the peace.

“How long for six years to end?” he asks. “We can still win the next elections.”