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Residency Requirement Change Could Reshape Liberian Presidential Race

Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (file)
Liberia's President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (file)

Liberia's electoral commission is asking voters to change the residency requirement for presidential candidates.  That would present more challengers to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the scheduled October election.

Liberia's national electoral commission is asking voters to lower the residency requirement for presidential candidates from 10 years to five years.

Elections commission spokesman Bobby Livingstone says the referendum gives Liberian voters the chance to decide for themselves who is eligible to lead them.

"We are putting in the basic operational plan, all of the different preparations for awareness, our strategy, and how we intend to translate the whole message of people voting for issues rather than voting for candidates," said Livingstone.

If passed, the shorter residency requirement would open the race against President Sirleaf to candidates who are blocked by the 10-year requirement, including former Justice Minister Winston Tubman, who is the nominee of the leading opposition party, and his running mate, former football star and the second-place finisher in the last election George Weah.

National Electoral Commission Chairman James Fromoyan says the change would significantly expand the presidential field.

"If you were to apply it, it would hold true for George Weah, Charles Brumskine, Winston Tubman, Nathaniel Barnes, you name it," said Fromoyan.  "Those who are aspiring to be president, how many of them would be able to contend that they have been here 10 years?"

Another candidate hoping for a change in the residency requirement is Reverend Kennedy Sandy, who launched his campaign in December promising to decentralize power and fight corruption.

Much of Sandy's support comes from younger voters.  If the residency requirement stands and Sandy is not allowed to run, university student Beatrice Nappy believes former rebel leader Prince Johnson would benefit most.

"Most of the young people in Liberia prefer Reverend Kennedy because he has a vision for the young people," said Nappy.  "But if he is affected by the five- or ten-years residency clause, I strongly believe that most of the young people will have no other alternative but to support former warlord Prince Johnson. Most of the ex-combatants believe in Prince Johnson.  They see him as their Messiah.  Therefore, he should not be taken lightly in the election."

Former combatant Jerry Tah voted for George Weah in the last election.  This time he is voting for Prince Johnson.

"Since we heard that our former rebel leader is getting into the race, a number of us have resolved to throw our weight behind him," noted Tah.  "We think he can better protect us and care for us as combatants.  People call us all kinds of names like 'criminals,' 'killers,' and etcetera.  But we believe that when Prince Johnson is elected, he will protect us."

The referendum on the rule change is scheduled for August, which would give newly-qualified candidates just seven weeks to campaign before the presidential election.  But the referendum also includes a provision to push back that election from October to November.

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