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August 01, 2011

Liberian Opposition Party Challenges Electoral Commission's Neutrality

by Scott Stearns

In Liberia, the main opposition Congress for Democratic Change party is boycotting this month's constitutional referendum, in part, because it questions the neutrality of Electoral Commission chairman James Fromayan, a long-time supporter of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Fromayan says he set aside party affiliation on taking charge of the electoral commission and could not influence the outcome of a vote even if he wanted to, because results are read out at each polling station.

“I can't add one or subtract one from whatever result that comes because people will notice it," Fromayan said. "They already know, have the results, sometimes they have the results before we can come to announce it.”

Loss of confidence

Congress for Democratic Change Secretary-General Acarous Gray says the party lost confidence in Fromayan when he co-chaired the commission during the last presidential vote.

The party says its candidate, former footballer George Weah, beat President Sirleaf because voters did not want what Gray calls an “autocratic presidency” that has been less interested in national reconciliation than in keeping power by rigging elections.

“If you saw the runoff election in 2005, many of the former warlords preferred to have supported the CDC in the runoff than supporting President Sirleaf because they felt that they were all active participants in the war and they would not have been safe under her governance process,”  Gray said.

Fromayan says the president's opponents are questioning his credibility because they have nothing else to run on in their campaign against her re-election.

“After six years you are still signing the same song that did not make sense six years ago," Fromayan asked. "You are now trying to, in a very naive way, trying to predetermine the outcome of the 2011 election. On what basis. Are you God?”

Change of heart

Among other questions, this month's constitutional referendum asks voters if they want to push back election day from October to November and open up the contest to candidates who have not lived in the country long enough to qualify at present.

Months after saying it would be impossible to conduct both a constitutional referendum and a presidential election in the same year, the electoral commission reversed itself and said the referendum would go ahead.

Attorney Jerome Verdier led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed Liberia's 14-year conflict. He says the electoral commission's change of heart about the referendum shows political manipulation.

“It undermines the credibility of the elections commission itself because, as a governing authority, you must be guided by the rule of law and not by the dictates of the powers that be," Verdier said.

Credibility issues

The attorney says the Sirleaf administration has failed to satisfy questions about the credibility of the commission and the laws it is using to govern elections.

“You are holding two elections - because the referendum is like an election - just about the same time under an institution that doesn't seem to have the full capacity to conduct these processes, especially almost simultaneously," noted Verdier. "That is a recipe for conflict, for confusion, for chaos."

Only one of Liberia's leading opposition parties is encouraging its supporters to take part in the referendum, but all will be subject to it results.

Verdier says the electoral commission's decision to go ahead with the referendum favors the incumbent because smaller parties with fewer funds are holding back on campaigning until they know when the vote will be held and who is eligible to run.