Liberians await presidential election results after low turnout on polling day

A combination of violence and an opposition party poll boycott may have contributed to low voter turnout on Liberia's presidential election day Tuesday.

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
A woman casts her vote for president at a polling station in the Paynesville neighborhood of Monrovia, Liberia on Nov. 8.

Liberia’s second round vote went off peacefully yesterday, just a day after violent clashes between police and opposition protestors in the capital on Monday. But international monitor groups are concerned that a visibly low voter turnout could undermine the perceived legitimacy of the elections and the leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is expected to claim victory.

Liberia’s National Electoral Commission has said it will begin releasing preliminary results tomorrow.

The streets of Monrovia, the site of massive political rallies by supporters of both parties just days before the first round of elections held in October, were quiet and queues at polling stations were notably thin, with some of them empty. Dan Sayree, the chief of the Liberian Democratic Institute and Liberian Democracy Watch, said that the group’s election observers had reported a low voter turnout in all 15 counties, but said the group was yet to come up with an estimate of the percentage of registered voters who went to the poll.

“On the reports we got from the field the turnout was low,” Mr. Sayree said. “When I spoke to monitors, the concerns seemed to be issues of security, the pronouncement by CDC [for a boycott]. Other factors could possibly be due to the fact that the people who were trucked in to vote weren’t trucked back.”

Sayree added that he thought the violence during Monday’s demonstration had played a role in the low voter turnout. “It is because of the violent incident yesterday – people didn’t want to go because security was the factor,” Sayree said.

On Monday the opposition party the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), headed by Harvard-educated former Justice Minister Winston Tubman and his vice presidential candidate running mate, soccer legend George Weah, called for a peaceful demonstration and boycott of the run-off elections, claiming that the first-round election results were fraudulent. The protest that attracted over a thousand CDC supporters quickly became violent, leaving two demonstrators dead and five in the hospital with bullet wounds.

Protesters crammed into CDC headquarters as tear gas was fired outside the building and UN helicopter gunships flew overhead and tanks surrounded the compound. According to Mr. Weah, the Liberian National Police Force and UN peacekeepers had urged protestors off the street and into the compound at the time of the protest, and that, while they were in the process of talking, started firing live bullets and tear gas.

“I’m very disappointed with Madam Johnson’s decision to shoot live bullets on a peaceful rally,” Weah told The Christian Science Monitor inside the compound on the day of the incident. “The international community needs to question why this happened. It is our right to assemble and do a peaceful rally. It’s war when they try to shoot bullets at peaceful people.”

Under Liberia’s electoral laws campaigning the day before elections is illegal. Justice Minister Christiana Tah said in a news conference on Monday that investigations were underway and that those who were responsible for the incident will be held to account. Yasmine Bouziane, the spokesperson for the Special Representative of the Secretary General, has said that no shots were fired by UN peacekeepers.

Yesterday in an interview on the porch of his home, situated in a street near the headquarters, Mr. Tubman said the party would wait until the election results came through before they decided the next course of action. He defended his decision to call for a boycott, despite criticism from regional bodies such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the US government.

“We are taking one day at a time,” he said. “Today we are in mourning and we will honor our dead. We will boycott today and wait and see how that pans out.”

“They are wrong to criticize what I am doing. I have a right to not vote. Every Liberian has a right, and having evaluated the feeling of my party, I came to the conclusion that the party should not vote. I don’t see how it can be called a violation of the constitution or a violation of any law. It is in fact the exercise of the constitutional right.”

Tubman said earlier today that he would not accept the result and may potentially seek to have it annulled, according to a report by Reuters.

Comfort Ero of the International Crisis Group said the organization was concerned about the boycott and Monday’s violence. She said the boycott and low voter turnout could pose major challenges to the government and potentially undermine the first domestically run elections since the end of the 14-year civil war in Liberia that claimed over 200,000 lives. The United Nations ran Liberia’s first democratic elections in 2005

“A lot hinges on that voter percentage turnout,” Ms. Ero said. “If it’s low then there will be questions about her legitimacy, if it is comfortable then she will be recognized as a democratically legitimate leader.”

Ero said the way in which Liberia’s elections had played out thus far reflected deeper issues within the fledgling West African democracy, such as the strength of the opposition and its ability to compete and political, class and ethnic divisions within a nation that has been in a state of political crisis for the past thirty years and suffered the consequences of a long civil war.

“It is clear the decision of the CDC to boycott the elections goes beyond the electoral process or the first round of elections on 11 October,” Ero said. “For the CDC, a series of political events, including the power of incumbency and the strong international support toward President Johnson Sirleaf have frustrated them a great deal. They have struggled to counter the ruling party's powerful machinery and one should not overlook the fact that the President does have a
 significant following in the country.”

Ero added that Ms. Sirleaf would need to work on key issues over which she has been criticized, both by the public and the opposition: political reconciliation, fighting corruption, and addressing the injustices and rights abuses committed in the past and present. 

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