Liberia: A blog about the elections and difficult governance ahead

Liberia held legislative and first-round presidential elections on October 11, and one of the coordinators of an observer mission, working for the International Republican Institute, has a blog about his experiences: Jeremy in Liberia.

In one post, Jeremy says:

I believe that organizations like IRI and NDI are making a real, positive and meaningful impact on the transition. The other day these organizations organized the first ever presidential debate in Liberia’s history, with some of the true ‘heavy-hitters’ making an appearance.

As an academic, I have to say that the jury is still out on just how effective democracy promotion by groups like IRI, NDI, and their counterparts based in other countries, are. As someone who believes in the spread of democracy, often calls himself a political engineer (I have done some consulting at stages prior to several new democracies’ elections), I really want to believe that these efforts can make a difference. And I admire people who will do the hard work that Jeremy is doing now in Liberia. As he relates in several of his posts, and shows with some nice photos, it is not exactly a cushy assignment. But it is an important one.

IRI has just issued a preliminary statement about the elections.

There will be a runoff to determine the presidency some time in early November.

Quite apart from what observers check on—whether the election is procedurally fair—Liberia faces very difficult governance due to the obvious fragmentation of political forces in the country and a set of institutions—presidential system with majoritarian congressional elections—that do little to fairly represent and channel that fragmentation.

Preliminary results show a very fragmented field and a closer race for second place (i.e. between inclusion and exclusion in the top-two runoff) than between first and second. This is quite common for runoff systems, and is one of their Achilles heals: Who places second and who just misses qualifying for the runoff sometimes can be decisive for the ultimate result. George Weah, an international football star, won just over a quarter of the vote, while Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who also ran in 1997, won around 14%. Two other candidates are at 11 and 10 percent. I have been able to find nothing about the likely second preferences of the voters who voted for the two who just missed the runoff, but in these kinds of fragmented first-round fields, there is always the risk that one of those who just missed the runoff would prove a stronger challenger to the front-running candidate than the one who does advance to the runoff. So, while runofffs ensure that the ultimate winner has a majority and make it unlikely that an extremist would win, sometimes the winner wins more or less by default (see Fujumori in Peru in 1990 or Chirac in France in 2002; either outcome might have been different if the candidate who narrowly finished a close third instead of second had advanced to the runoff). Add in the low information of a first election after civil war, and the runoff system seems especially risky.

Compounding this risk is the use of majoritarian elections for congress in the context of such fragmentation and uncertainty. No legislative results are out yet (apparently), but the result is sure to show little relationship between votes and seats percentages and to make for difficult governance for whoever is elected president. A fragmented legislature in which no party has a majority yet the many parties are not represented in relationship to their popular support is the worst of both worlds. (And, of course, a majority of seats when the largest party has only a quarter of the votes would be even worse!) Proportional representation or some form of mixed-member system would clearly be a better choice.

The 1997 legislative election was proportional, based on the percentage of votes cast for each party’s presidential candidate—a very odd way to run a PR legislative election, though it has been done in some Latin American countries. In the 1997 election, one candidate, the notorious Charles Taylor, won around 75% of the vote.

According to Adam Carr (as well as other sources I have seen), the lower house (64 members) this time will be elected by plurality in single-seat districts. The senate (26 members, though another source says 30) is elected in two-member districts (though I am unsure of whether voters vote for a slate of candidates, for two candidates separately, or for one).

The term of office for these legislators is extraodinarily long: Six years for the lower and nine for the upper. As far as I know, those are the longest legislative terms in the world. (Nicaragua’s 1987 constitution originally called for six-year terms for its unicameral congress, but once the Sandinistas were defeated in the 1990 election, the term was shortened to five. Four or five years for lower or sole houses is typical; upper-house terms are rarely longer than six, though Chile’s are eight.)

So, here you have a legislature in which many parties will be represented with only weak connection to their popular support and a president who may not really be the majority favorite despite winning a majority runoff, and they have to work with each other for the next six years. That is, assuming democracy survives that long. I hope it does. But Liberia could hardly have picked a worse set of institutions to that end.

2 thoughts on “Liberia: A blog about the elections and difficult governance ahead

  1. Pingback: Liberia election: Africa’s first woman president will face a deeply divided legislature | Fruits and Votes

  2. Pingback: The magnitude of the Hamas sweep: The electoral system did it | Fruits and Votes

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