Ahead of the October 2011 general elections, a billboard in Monrovia urges citizens to choose ballots over bullets.
Liberia’s most recent elections, held in October 2011, were plagued by controversy and strained relationships between political parties and the National Election Commission (NEC). This stemmed from allegations that the NEC was biased toward the ruling Unity Party (UP).
The conflict culminated in the period following the general elections, as it became clear that no party had received enough votes to avoid a run-off. Several opposition parties began alleging election fraud and manipulation. The leading opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), boycotted the November 8 run-off election after demands to replace Chairman James Fromayan of the NEC were not met. Following intensive discussions before the run-off elections with members of the NEC Board of Commissioners and international partners, Chairman Fromayan decided to resign for the sake of peace and to ensure that run-off elections take place in a peaceful and orderly manner.
The results revealed President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as the winner in polls deemed credible by international and domestic observation groups. However, she was inaugurated in an environment of distrust and hostility as a result of the contested elections.
Prior to the run-off election, IFES started organizing regular interfaces between the NEC and political parties to build a relationship based on trust. The workshops were intended to increase political parties’ understanding of the electoral and legislative process behind electoral policies, with the added objective of gaining support and input on legal reforms.
After the elections, Liberia once again embarked upon reviewing its constitution and legal code. The NEC has continued to spearhead the process of gathering proposals and feedback on parts of the law affecting elections. They have also been educating the public and stakeholder groups on the legal reform process. Comprehensive proposals for amendments to Liberia’s constitution should be presented to the legislature in early 2013 for discussion and a vote.
The Inter-Party Consultative Committee (IPCC) – an entity in Liberia that provides a platform for dialogue among political parties and between political parties and the NEC – has been used since the first post-war election as a forum for the NEC to deliver electoral updates and seek input on policy decisions regarding emerging conflicts within and among political parties. IFES believes trust between political parties and the election commission is essential for peaceful elections and, therefore, has supported IPCC activities over the years. Recently, IFES hosted two workshops for IPCC members and the NEC.
In September, IFES organized a forum with the IPCC on the ongoing election law reform process. The objective was to gather feedback and recommendations from political party representatives on proposed reforms to Liberia’s election law. Unlike previously held public forums, which focused on the proposed draft election law, this event provided a platform to discuss women’s participation and the development of a legal framework. After the forum, the political parties presented a working document to the NEC of electoral reform concerns gathered through research conducted on their own.
In December, IFES supported another workshop with political party representatives, which was hosted by the NEC. The focus was on sustainability of political parties – a key pillar of the NEC’s 2012-2018 strategic plans. Currently, many Liberian political parties have difficulty meeting the legal requirements of maintaining their registration. This includes having a bank balance of at least USD $10,000 dollars at all times and maintaining a dedicated office. The NEC’s attempts to hold political parties to these standards could lead to new frictions, and so the NEC is trying to build parties’ capacity to meet the requirements. Strong political parties are essential to the functioning of a democracy, and the NEC has shown active interest in supporting parties in their attempts to become more sustainable and better understand the electoral environment.
The workshop also integrated financial management guidelines, acknowledging that money is often a point of conflict in politics. Information covered included how to report finances, recruit members, maintain members and create newsletters.
This event was different than previous IPCC events, as financial directors and secretary generals – party members who have the ability to make decisions and change policy – were in attendance. This is encouraging, as it shows political parties are seriously engaged and feel they can benefit from NEC sponsored events.
At the close of the workshop, Acting Chairperson of the NEC Dr. Elizabeth Nelson said, “Since the conduct of the 2011 elections, relations between the NEC and political parties have improved tremendously. This is due to the frequent IPCC meetings and frank discussions that characterize such meetings. It is only befitting that political parties, as key stakeholders, be appropriately informed and involved every step of the way.”