Elections In 42 Days: Is Liberia Ready? Referendum After Shock, Expectations

Written by Nat Bayjay
Source: Front Page Africa
How would Political Parties who Campaigned for the Referendum gauge their Performance ahead of the general elections? Is the Ruling Unity Party Nursing Injuries Due To Missing-out on Many ‘Sponsored’ Propositions? How Prepared Is National Elections to Conduct Elections in 42 Days? Is there sufficient money in the government’s coffers? How would it impact the turnout?
As the the National Elections Commission (NEC) releases the final figures of the just-ended National Referendum Wednesday, it appears unlikely that the remaining less than 1% will have any impact on the already announced more than 99% results showing a blanket rejection of all four issues on the referendum ballot. The only issue which appears to have come within striking distance of passage is the proposition seeking simple majority for legislative seats instead of the previous absolute majority. The other three propositions seem very likely to remain unchanged.
Why the referendum failed
Political Analysts have indicated that the referendum was bound to fail because the ruling party did not build consensus amongst the political groupings of Liberia. Scholars say constitutional amendments are not supposed to be partisan driven because it is aimed to improve the Constitution for the entire country and that is why the Constitutional requirement is set to two-thirds vote cast. Legal Analysts say the two-thirds requirement was intended to make it more difficult for a sitting President to just change the Constitution at will.
Secondly, the main political oppositions groups were opposed to the referendum. Winston Tubman and George Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change boycotted. Dew Mayson and Dusty Wolokollie’s National Democratic Coalition, Prince Johnson-Supuwood’s National Union for Democratic Progress and Simeon Freeman and Dr. Cyrus Kromah’s Movement for Democratic Progress opposed the referendum. All other opposition candidates, except for Liberty Party, opposed the referendum.
Compounding the lack of a consensus on the Referendum, critics say, was the lack of sufficient voter education on the four propositions. Some political observers saw the propositions also as being “self serving” and not fundamental enough. Such issues as reducing the Presidential tenure from six to four years, Senators from nine to six years and Representatives from six to four years could have added significant moment to the referendum initiatives. The four provisions on the 2011 were therefore considered not substantial.
Support, no campaign for Brumskine, Liberty Party
Brumskine-Siakor’s Liberty Party supported all the provisions but there was no evidence that they campaigned actively for the referendum. It was only President Sirleaf and her Unity Party that campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum. Could the result had been even worst had Liberty Party not supported the ruling Unity Party in the referendum, opponents of the process seem to think that way.
The Referendum became necessary after the National Legislature passed a Joint Resolution LEG-002/2010 on August 17, 2010 authorizing the electoral body to conduct a National Referendum to amend four provisions in the 1986 Liberian Constitution. A year later, voters queued up nationwide to decide whether the four provisions that were forwarded to Commission would be retained or changed.
In a rather low turnout but peacefully conducted National Referendum, the voters decided whether the residency requirement for presidential candidates should be reduced from 10 years to 5 years according to Article 52 (c); whether the retirement age of judges should be extended from 70 years to 75 years according to Article 72 (b); whether the election date should be changed from October to November according to Article 83 (a) and whether they should amend Article 83 (b) that sought to, except for the presidential election, make legislative candidates to only be required to acquire the most votes instead of more than half the votes resulting into a change from absolute majority to simple majority.
Per Article 91(a) of the Constitution, the amendments must be ratified by two-thirds of registered voters in a referendum held not sooner than one year after the passage of the amendments in the Legislature. Though all four amendments were voted on in the same referendum, Article 91(b) requires that each amendment should be individually approved by the voters.
Politicized Referendum & How Parties Fared
To further bolster the argument that the referendum was more political than nationalistic, political parties and politicians took diverse sides. For the ruling UP, it was ‘important’ for voters to say ‘YES’ to all of the four propositions.
The UP went farther by launching a massive campaign for its partisans and other Liberians to join in its cause of “‘YES’ to all” campaign. Various dailies carried UP sponsored advertisements encouraging voters to turn out and vote ‘YES’ to all. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said that her administration viewed the amendment regarding the switch to simple majority in legislative elections as the only crucial proposal due to its financial implications. Finance Minister Augustine Ngafuan told FPA that an estimated US$6 million would be used for legislative second round, revealing that the late 2009 Montserrado County by-election that ushered in the CDC’s Geraldine Doe-Sheriff cost over a million US dollars.
Liberty Party remained the only opposition party which supported the same “‘YES’ to all” call but did very little in launching or carrying out any campaign as its rival UP. It also announced its support for the amendments but argued for more comprehensive constitutional reform.
For the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), a boycott was the way out as an apparent strategy that required 2/3 votes to amend a constitutional provision would not be achieved since it is the largest opposition party. The NEC however stated that it will be 2/3 of the participating voters and not necessarily the 2/3 of the registered voters, putting the CDC in a complicated cage as its opposition would have been better demonstrated with ‘massive’ ‘NO’ votes.
Former President Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Party (NPP)’s Standard Bearer Senator Jewel Howard-Taylor told FPA that she would vote against all four amendments, believing that the residency clause amendment discriminated against recent returnees and the extension of judge tenure would delay replacement of the country’s judges with more qualified appointees.
It was the opposition Movement for Progressive Change (MPC) which sought legal remedy to halt the process, although the Supreme Court remained silent on the matter until the referendum was held. The controversial Threshold Bill which eventually gave way to the Joint Resolution had previously been held up at the Supreme Court by several groups and individuals.
The latest results reporting 99.1% of the votes of the referendum revealed that 494,079 voters out of a total of 1.7 million voters participated, a figure which represents 27.47 %. While the nearly 70% of the abstained voters during the August 23, 2011 referendum meant a big lack of interest against the Commission’s decision to hold a referendum barely two months to general elections, it also suggested a likely outcome of how the general elections would come into play in about six weeks.
UP’s First Round Not-Enough-Victory?
If the results of the referendum would reflect the UP’s showing during the October presidential elections since they led the campaign for ‘YES’ votes, it would mean a first round victory for the ruling party but enough to acquire the required absolute majority of 50% plus one vote. Though the opposition Liberty Party is relishing a pat on the back for sharing in the call for the ‘YES’ votes, it would still imply that calls from the both parties were not enough to acquire half of the votes.
For a campaign that ran from May 1, 2011 – August 21, 2011 and the National Referendum held two days later, the UP led-YES vote campaign did succeed but not enough to overturn three existing constitutional provisions.
In the latest pronouncement of the over 99% referendum votes, ‘YES’ dominates three of the four propositions with only one of the three propositions passing the 2/3 votes.
Announcing the fourth provisional results Monday, National Elections Commission (NEC) boss James Fromayan revealed Proposition Four has 359,545 ‘YES’ votes opposed to 172,608 ‘NO’ votes and 75,537 invalid votes. The ‘YES’ votes for Proposition 4 represents over 60% of the 2/3 votes required to amend Article 83 (b).
Despite the ‘YES’ votes’ dominance, it remains unlikely that the residency requirement for presidential candidates will be reduced from 10 years to 5 years which Article 52 (c) seeks to change. According to the latest results, proposal to change Proposition One as it is named on the ballot has 288,058 ‘YES’ votes, 243,567 ‘NO’ votes and 76,065 invalid votes with less than 1% left.
Unheralded few in presidential race
Unless otherwise interpreted by the Supreme Court, this could mean that the possible ten-year clause would have effects on incumbent, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s aspiration for a second term and killed presidential ambitions for the CDC’s Winston Tubman, the Liberty Party’s Charles Brumskine, the National Democratic Coalition (NDC)’s Dew Mayson, the National Union for Democratic Progress (NUDP)’s Prince Johnson, and a barrage of other ‘occasional’ overseas-based presidential candidates in, M. Cecelia Ndebe, Chea J Cheapoo, Gladys G. Y. Beyan,  Rev. G. Kennedy Sandy, James Chelley and Hananiah Zoe of the Liberia Reconstruction Party (LRP), People’s Progressive Party (PPP), Grassroot Democratic Party of Liberia (GDPL), Liberia Transformation Party (LTP), Original Congress Party of Liberia(OCPOL) and the Liberia Empowerment Party (LEP) respectively.
This could mean the 16 presidential names cut to locally-based candidates led by Dr. Tokpa Nah-Tipoteh, Marcus Jones and Simeon Freeman the Freedom Alliance Party of Liberia (FAPL), Victory for Change Party (VCP) and the MPC. The quest to have the retirement age of judges extended from 70 years to 75 years, according to Article 72 (b), continues to get an overwhelming ‘NO’ of all the four propositions. Labeled Proposition Two, it has 218,179 ‘YES’ votes, 317,957 ‘NO’ votes and 71,554 invalid votes according to the 99.1% of the votes counted. The amendment to change the electoral date from October to November, according to Article 83 (a) is also suffering to get the required 2/3 votes receiving 303,250 ‘YES’ votes’, 231,738 ‘NO’ votes and 72,702 invalid votes.
Proposition Two has 218,179 ‘YES’ votes, 317,957 ‘NO’ votes and 71,554 invalid votes while Proposition Three has 303,250 ‘YES’ votes’, 231,738 ‘NO’ votes and 72,702 invalid votes. Chairman Fromoyan said the 99.1% of the votes represents 4,418 polling places out of the total of 4,457 polling places which in turn means 607, 690 voters turned out for the referendum thus far.
How the Vote-Rich Counties Performed
With a huge reliance on at least the five most populated counties, presidential candidates will be looking to acquire enough votes out of Montserrado, Nimba, Bong, Lofa and Grand Bassa Counties proving to the vote-rich counties. But how much success did the ruling party vis-à-vis the opposition score in luring voters for the referendum? Monday’s 99.1% of the results showed 3,840 of the 4,457 polling places nation-wide have reported with Bomi, Bong, Cape Mount, Grand Kru, Rivercess, Sinoe, River Gee, and Gbarpolu have all reported 100%.
Six hundred and seventeen polling places remain with Montserrado having a balance of 502 out of its total 1,477, Margibi having a balance of 23 out of its 305, Grand Bassa’s 336 polling places have a balance of 19 places, Nimba’s 556 has 56 outstanding, Lofa’s total of 378 has five outstanding and Grand Gedeh and Maryland still have one polling station each to report. Whether results from the balance of 617 polling places will be able to overturn the already reported 3,840 polling places remains an uphill battle for those hopeful of the struggling three propositions.
Expensive Referendum & NEC’s Elections Task
Prior to the conduct of the referendum, critics cited waste of resources to hold the referendum which the NEC had previously said was not possible to hold within less than two months of the conduct of the general and legislative elections (August 23 to October 11, 2011). A total of US$69 million is earmarked to conduct the 2011 elections with an estimated US$10 million for the just ended referendum.
Chairman Fromoyan had stated that the estimated cost of holding both elections in close proximity would be prohibitive but however, later reversed his position in September 2010, citing the fact that of the estimated US$69 million needed to conduct the 2011 elections, 65% of those funds would be used to hold runoff elections for legislative seats with the hope that the already sailed-through Proposition would satisfy this.
The national government provided, according to Finance Minister Augustine K. Ngafuan, US$16.7 million towards the entire electoral process with donors proving the balance that summed it to almost US$70 million being used for the entire process including voters’ registration, referendum, and the general presidential and legislative elections.
‘Government to Fast-Track Funding’
With concerns mounting whether the NEC would be facing constraints to hold elections in October against the proposal in Proposition Three that would have seen it held in November, Finance Minister Ngafuan told FPA that the government will fast-track its promised funding to the Commission to enable the smooth holding of the elections in about one and a half month.
“We don’t want to delay the holding of the elections; the government will fast-track payment to the Commission”, the Finance Minister said.
The finance minister said the government is not worried about the referendum not being able to push the date to November: “Our only concern has been on the run-offs of legislature”.
A thumbs-up to the fourth proposition according to the obtained over 99% results means a cost-saving measure which was not enforced for the 2005 legislative elections, where candidates were elected by a simple majority. The proposed amendment would make this arrangement permanent, using a single-round first-past-the-post method for all legislative and municipal elections while maintaining the two-round system for presidential elections.
The Referendum Controversies
There remains a controversy over the electoral body’s boss’ assertion that a 2/3 majority of the 1.7 million registered voters did not need to say ‘YES’ to changing any provision of the constitution but rather 2/3 of those who turned out to vote.
Some Liberians including Abraham G. Massally, former Press Union of Liberia Chairman argued against it: “Personally, I seriously differ with the assertion by the Chairman of the Elections Commission that a 2/3 majority of the 1.7 million registered voters did not need to say yes to changing any provision of the constitution.
But that’s how I understand the language to be, in the Liberian Constitution. Two-thirds of state legislatures must approve any amendment to the United States Constitution. Amending any provision of a country’s National constitution should not be an E-Z process. Besides, propositions usually require certain percentage of registered voters in order to pass. That’s why in other countries, people campaign for vote boycott so that the threshold cannot be met”, Masssally said in an opinion piece to FPA letter column.
An erroneous referendum ballot paper spurred major controversies and cast a stain over the NEC’s ability to conduct the crucial elections without flaws. FPA reported that ballots had a significant error on the first proposition with one question asking whether the voters wanted to increase judges’ retirement age from “75 to 75 years” rather than the correct “70 to 75 years.”
Several other voters called in to local radio stations on the day of the referendum to make similar reports.
NEC officials acknowledged and apologized for the error, noting that the ballots had been printed in Denmark and thus the error had been discovered after the printing had been completed. The NEC also stated that polling stations with the incorrect ballots had posted clarifications and disclaimer, with Chairman Fromoyan later telling reporters that the error would have no impact on the results of the referendum.
With forty-two days left to the crucial elections, since it is now clear that the proposition seeking looking to extend voting to November unlikely; NEC remains confident that no hindrance could block the holding of elections. With the government pledging to ‘fast-track’ payments to fund the process, it remains to be seen whether the outcome in the general elections would be much different from the referendum relative to political parties’ ability to campaign and the ability of the NEC to right the wrongs which fueled controversy during the referendum process.


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