|Former TRC Chairman, Cllr. Jerome Verdier|
The pre-election constitutional referendum is less than a month away. As months become weeks and weeks become days and hours, many expect the National Elections Commission (NEC’s) to step up its information campaign to stir up voters’ interest and obtain the critical turnout, without which the referendum will be a waste of meager resources. While NEC’s low-key response to the fleeting time is reason enough for concern amongst pro-referendum activists, the anti-referendum forces are becoming even more vocal. One of them, former TRC chairman and longtime human rights activist and lawyer, Cllr. Jerome Verdier, is calling for “no” votes; or worse, he is calling for a boycott of the referendum. The Analyst, reports.Former TRC Chairman, Cllr. Jerome Verdier, says the August 23, 2011 National Constitutional Referendum does not worth the while of the Liberian people, besides being an “unconstitutional” and “illegitimate” imposition on the Liberian people.
He is therefore calling on voters to defeat the referendum either by staying away on August 23, or turning out but voting ‘NO’ on all four propositions for amendment.
The referendum is proposing to amend the residency clause, the retirement age for justices of the Supreme Court, the national Election Day from October to November, and the absolute majority rule for all elective posts to simple majority rule for legislative posts.
The proposed changes, according to proponents, will enable exiled Liberians to participate in the ensuing elections, thereby expending the sphere of democratic participation. Proponents say the changes will also enable NEC to cut the 2011 electoral expenses by half; that is, if the referendum amends the absolute majority system, which often leads to runoffs in nearly all legislative elections.
Moreover, according to them, if the proposal for shifting the Election Day from October (the end month of the rainy season in Liberia) to November (the early days of the dry season, when most of the country is accessible), political parties and candidates will have sufficient time to canvass support.
These proposed changes are no doubt appealing, even to critics and anti-referendum forces, but their contention is not about the proposed changes. So, what Cllr. Verdier grumbling about?
Timing – legality
“The Referendum is illegitimate [because it] unconstitutional. By voting in the referendum we legitimize a flawed and premature process which does not represent the interest of the Liberian people; all the requirements of Articles 91 & 92 of the Constitution of Liberia have not been met,” contends a press statement Cllr. Verdier released yesterday.
The statement, titled, “Referendum 2011: Your Vote and the Magic Number”, says not only had the government not published the propositions contained in the referendum in a national gazette prior to authorizing a referendum as required by law, but that it is being scheduled less than the constitutionally required 24-month minimum preparation time.
Besides, the statement contends, the referendum violates Article 7 of the constitution, which it says requires the maximum feasible participation of the Liberia people in all workings of the government.
But, that is not the only problem with the referendum that is weighing on Cllr. Verdier’s mind. He believes that NEC has no authority under the laws of Liberia to conduct a national referendum.
“The NEC is established by the Constitution (Art 89) but derives its powers and authority from the Legislature (Art 89) and not the Constitution. Without a statute or enabling Referendum Law, the NEC cannot conduct a legitimate and legal referendum,” the statement contends further.
It said what the scheduled referendum will bring to national discourse is how to know and determine that the referendum is approved, when such approval takes effect – before or after the October elections – and many other issues that can only be addressed legislatively.
The worst case of the referendum, the statement says, is that NEC and the Sirleaf Administration have imposed it on the Liberian people, thereby making it undemocratic.
“The government used the top-to-bottom approach instead of the bottom-to-top approach, which gives all powers to the people,” the statement says, referencing Article 1 of the constitution of Liberia.
It says while it might be an easy matter in Liberia to violate the constitution with impunity, Liberians must be reminded by the recent TRC findings that the 1990-2003 civil upheavals were supposed to be about democracy, human and civil rights, and the rule of law.
“The people could have preferred removing the residency clause entirely; reducing the term of office for elected officials; proposing the reduction of presidential powers, election of local officials, etc., and no other time is better than now after a violent conflict…” it says.
It says proponents of the referendum will see the vainness of the referendum if they consider the fact that the scheduled date for the referendum, and that of the national elections, were too close and demanding to allow time for proper planning.
It says they will also realize that the referendum ignores the socio-political history and reality of Liberia concerning past attempts by those in power to raise the barriers to the participation of the majority of the people in national decision-making.
The statement says this is exactly what the framers of the referendum intend to achieve by seeking to replace the absolute majority rule with the simple majority rule.
“It seeks to undermine and reverse our democratic progress which began with majority rule and universal adult suffrage for all in Liberia enshrined in the new constitution after the 1890 military coup d’état,” the statement claims.
Cllr. Verdier’s statement says these negatives about the referendum were sufficient to defer its holding, but it says there are more spine-numbing reasons why the government and NEC must second-guess their plans to conduct the referendum.
NEC’s flaw interpretation, Verdier’s Magic Number
The statement says that NEC chose to misinterpret Article 91 in light of the conduct of ordinary political elections rather than as a national plebiscite requirement to alter the laws of the land – the constitution itself.
“It is very clear from the foregoing that the so-called referendum is not just a shameful mockery but the government avoiding any fashionable debate over the matter and ignoring public concerns for the cancellation of the so-called referendum,” the Verdier statement claims.
It reiterated earlier argument that the referendum should have been preceded by the enactment of a “Referendum Law”.
“The NEC is obviously confronted with the conflict of determining what standards will legitimize the referendum and declare a victory for the beneficiaries – the incumbent president, judges, legislators and the NEC itself. Without any Referendum Law, proper education and any proposition that represents the real interest of the people and nation, NEC is attempting to fill this gap by corrupting Article 92. [It is] feeding the Liberian people rubbish to lower the standards (the legitimacy bar) and reduce the magic number needed in the vote to legitimize the entire referendum process,” the statement alleges.
The statement refrained from defining “rubbish” as it respects NEC’s current referendum schedule and voters’ education program, but it joined other anti-referendum activists to hold the commission to the position it had already rescinded.
NEC is reported to have said that it would base the approval of the August referendum on the “yes votes” of two-third majority of the total valid ballots cast.
In its statement announcing the starting of the political campaign period for the 2011 presidential and legislative elections, last Tuesday, however, NEC said it would not make such determination on the strength of two-third majority of the total registered voters.
But even in that case, Cllr. Verdier’s statement argues, NEC is shooting itself and those who stand to gain from the referendum in the foot. It says NEC’s ignoring of Article 92 of the constitution and its lukewarm voters’ education campaign were unlikely to bring the nation’s 1.8 million registered voters to the poll on August 23.
Unless there is a full turn out, Verdier argues, it will be impossible for NEC to determine the two-third majority, which is, mathematically, 1.2 million votes cast. He calls it the “magic number” of the referendum.
“The NEC is clearly aware of this uphill battle since there was no time to inform and educate the people about the proposed changes which are definitely not people-centered; which did not derive from the people and which is therefore neither popular with the people nor represent their preferences for interests,” the statement claims
Meanwhile Cllr. Verdier, through the statement, has reiterated his earlier call to “all Liberians not to participate or vote in the August 2011 Referendum but if you do, VOTE NO to all four counts on the ballot”.