Liberia election: Voting went smoothly, but how about the results?

Foreign observer missions are praising Liberia's first domestically organized national elections since the end of civil war in 2003, but experts warn that a likely runoff election could still trigger violence.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Liberia election party observers look on as presidential ballots are counted at a polling station in the G.W. Gibson school, in Monrovia, Liberia on Tuesday.

Liberians braved the rainy weather yesterday and turned out in great numbers to vote in the West African nation’s first domestically organized elections since the end of the civil war in 2003, with international observer groups praising the voting process for the orderly and peaceful manner in which it was executed.

“I have personally gone round polling stations throughout Monrovia and have spoken with around 150 [Economic Community of West African States] observers and we are pleased to see that the voting went smoothly and that there was orderliness and a high turnout of voters as well as a peaceful conducting of elections,” says Professor Attahiru Jega, the head of the ECOWAS Election Observation Mission in Liberia.

The African Union and the Atlanta-based Carter Center have praised the manner in which the vote was conducted. And in a statement issued from the United Nations headquarters in New York, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the presidential and legislative elections were an “important milestone” in the Liberia’s efforts to “consolidate peace and democracy in the country."

Despite the achievement for the war-battered country, however, concerns about post-election unrest abound.

Preliminary results will be released by the National Electoral Commission (NEC) on Thursday, and observers are warning that a first-round win by incumbent President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf could spark violence from opposition supporters convinced that the election is too close not to go to a run-off on Nov. 8.

“It is highly unlikely that either political party will win [outright] in the first round,” says Dan Saryee, the executive director of the Liberian Institute for Democracy, a democratic policy organization based in the nation’s capital, Monrovia. “If the process of announcing any political parties winning the first round under circumstances that the opposition is not satisfied with, it could be a trigger violence." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Saryee's name.]

The streets of Monrovia were quiet today after yesterday’s vote, which followed a week of heavy last-minute campaigning that drew rallies of tens of thousands of people for both of the two main rival parties.

The elections – the first to be conducted by the NEC and in accordance with the Liberia’s 1986 Constitution – are seen as a significant step forward in Liberia’s path to democratization, since the end of 14 years of back-to-back civil wars in which over 200,000 people were killed.

“The elections will add value to our democratization effort in Liberia in the sense that Liberians will get to realize that there are other means to choose their leaders without becoming violent,” says Saryee, who was optimistic that the election would play out peacefully. “Despite all the inflammatory statements that were made during the campaign political parties and their supporters were able to restrain themselves and there were no reports of clashes between the major parties and their supporters.”

Liberians voters interviewed by the Monitor at a polling station at the University of Liberia echoed these sentiments.

Abubakar Bah, a management student at the University of Liberia who was waiting in front of a polling station to cast his first-ever vote, said that the outcome of these elections could help challenge the widely held perception of Liberia as a post-conflict country that is perpetually teetering on the brink of violence.

“These elections are important (…) because we will let the outside world know that Liberians are tired of violence,” Mr. Bah said. “Through these elections we will tell people that Liberians are peaceful people and that we are tired of war and that we want to develop our country.”

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