Liberia Moves Toward Democratic Consolidation: Q&A with IFES Liberia Chief of Party Parvinder Singh
By Editorial and Communications Manager Adam Gallagher
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president in Liberia’s 2005 elections it was both a monumental moment for women in Africa – as she became the continent’s first elected women head of state – and for democracy in Liberia. After decades of conflict, Liberians demonstrated their resolve to move past the violence and build their county. Madam Sirleaf (as she is popularly known in Liberia) was re-elected in 2011, the same year she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
With general elections slated for October 10, 2017, President Johnson Sirleaf is helping to ensure the consolidation of democracy in Liberia by not seeking a third term, which would have required a constitutional amendment. Liberians will head to the polls to elect their next president and vice president and all 73 members of the House of Representatives. With 20 candidates vying for the presidency and over 980 candidates running for the House, the elections are expected to be hotly contested.
After the signing of the 2003 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) conducted an assessment of Liberia’s National Elections Commission (NEC), which led to our first program in the country. Since that time, IFES has been present in Liberia working to building the capacity of the NEC and civil society organizations (CSOs). In this Q&A, days ahead of Liberia’s pivotal general elections, IFES Liberia Chief of Party Parvinder Singh discusses the challenges of conducting elections in Liberia, IFES’ work with the NEC and civil society, and the importance of this election for the country’s democracy.
What are some of the major challenges to conducting elections in Liberia, where over the half the population is illiterate and basic infrastructure is lacking?
Liberia is an underdeveloped country on the path to development. But, that’s why we support elections here. The country has a very poor communication and transportation infrastructure, which often leads to a limited amount of balanced information on political and electoral processes.
When the NEC started planning for the 2017 elections, the main issue was funding. The government committed $40 million to be dispersed in two batches; one for voter registration and one for the conduct of the election. During the registration period, we realized that the government would not be able to give that much. So IFES modified its project to help with procurement. That was the first challenge.
The second challenge was how to reach people. On voter outreach, we realized that with a large population of illiterate Liberians, there is no way to reach them through print media. IFES started a radio program in 2011 called “Elections and You,” which was quite successful at that time. For the 2017 elections, we re-released that program and from the very beginning it reached most parts of the country through over 800 community-based radio stations. IFES also worked with a production house, the New Liberian Media Initiative, which helped reach out to Liberians in every part of the country. We have worked closely with the NEC on the radio program and whenever there was a particular issue to be addressed, NEC commissioners or the executive director would go live on the radio show and interact with people and answer their questions. We also started another show “Say Yes to Peace,” which spreads messages about the importance of a peaceful and democratic transitions and has been well received by the public.
IFES is supporting CSOs in Liberia to raise awareness throughout the country, particularly in remote areas. How has IFES approached this support?
We are directly interacting and working with 27 grassroots CSOs that are based in all 15 counties of Liberia. We have not only supported them financially, but also have daily communication. We also targeted CSOs that work on disability issues, women’s empowerment, and youth. We helped provided a guide for different themes and activities and monitored their progress, which has been excellent. These CSOs are conducting very important civic and voter education outreach and awareness. Targeted, comprehensive voter education is fundamental to a peaceful electoral process in Liberia. Beyond this election, IFES will continue to fund CSOs to conduct outreach focusing on educating the public about the importance of a peaceful political transition and democratic transfer of power.
Liberia’s 2005 and 2011 elections were supported by a significant level of international assistance. With the gradual drawdown of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNIMIL) presence in Liberia, there will be decreased logistical support, particularly in reaching remote areas of the country. Given this context, how would you assess the NEC’s preparations for the 2017 elections.
From the beginning, the NEC was aware that they would not receive the same level of international support as in previous elections and planned accordingly with their own budget and resources. On the technical side, the NEC was prepared to do the elections on their own, especially in regard to logistics. In past elections, UNIMIL had been critical in distributing elections materials around the country. For this election, the NEC had to procure their own vehicles to distribute the materials. Because it’s the rainy season, in some cases the NEC relied on local people to use rafts and boats to get materials in remote parts of the country.
What do these elections represent for the future of democratic consolidation in Liberia?
In 2005 and 2011, Madam Sirleaf was elected, inaugurating Liberia’s democratic system. The 2017 elections have more significance in the sense that there is the possibility of a peaceful transfer of power. How well it is taken by politicians, the people in power and the public is still to be seen; but, indications are that everything will be smooth. Unlike many places in Africa, Liberians are not tribally divided and religion is also not an issue here. The Christian majority and the Muslim minority live and work together without any divide.
IFES’ current efforts in Liberia, which began in 2015, are part of five-year U.S. Agency for International Development funded program, ultimately aimed at building the capacity of the NEC to manage all stages of the electoral cycle. What does IFES have planned following the 2017 elections?
Back in April 2015 we reviewed the NEC’s strategic plan, which ends in 2018. Incorporating the lessons learned from this election, IFES wants to support the NEC in developing its post-2018 strategic plan. Political finance is one particular area we want to work with the NEC on. Another issue is the implementation of the strategic plan. The NEC develops excellent strategic plans, but, given the challenges in a country like Liberia, implementing these plans can be very difficult. The capacity is here and we want to support the NEC to ensure that they are able to achieve the objectives of their plan. We also want to work with the NEC commissioners to continue to be transparent in dealing with the public and political parties. Particularly to get out ahead of issues when they arise, with an active approach to outreach, which helps assuages public concerns that are often exacerbated by rumor mongering.
For more on these elections, please see IFES' FAQs.