Liberia election: Africa’s first woman president will face a deeply divided legislature

[UPDATE, Nov. 12: Don’t miss Jonathan Edelstein’s thought-provoking comment to this post; I responded to Jonathan in a subsequent post: Liberia: Would open-list PR, a la Somaliland, be better?]

Liberia only sporadically gets noticed in the United States, despite the deep historical ties between the US and that west African country, founded by freed US slaves (supposedly) in 1847. There is much good news in this past week’s completion of a round of quite free elections. Most of the news and the relatively limited blog focus (e.g. Gateway Pundit, Mensa-Barbie, The Head Heeb, and others) is on the presidential race, but most of my post here today will be about looking ahead to relations between the new president and the congress that was elected last month. The outcome of the congressional elections offers lots of reasons for being cautious about progress towards democracy in that country.

But first, the presidential race. Results are still not complete from Tuesday’s presidential runoff, but that has not stopped former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf from claiming victory. She will be the first female president in African history. She defeated former international football star George Weah. The divide between the candidates appears to be about 59–41.

Weah had led after the first round on October 11, though with only 28.3% of the vote. Johnson-Sirleaf had 19.8% on the first round, and other candidates trailed with vote percentages of 13.9, 9.2, 7.8, and the rest scattered amongst many others.

Weah seems to have forgotten that often the team that leads the first half does not win the game. He is alleging fraud (though international observers disagree), and today there were clashes between his supporters and UN peacekeeping forces.

As I noted in my previous post on the first round of the Liberian elections, the new president will face a deeply fragmented bicameral congress. Liberia’s system of government is pure presidential, meaning President Johnson-Sirleaf will have the freedom to appoint a cabinet of her choosing, but also meaning that negotiations with such a fracuted legislature will be difficult.

The results of the legislative election–held at the same time as the first round of the presidential contest–show how highly regionalized and personalized electoral politics is. Without any party component to the allocation of seats, “local notables” prevailed in the candidate races for House and Senate seats. Many of these elected notables are closely tied to ousted former dictator Charles Taylor, and some are even his family members. Both candidates in the presidential runoff were courting the pro-Taylor vote. In other words, this election hardly presages Liberia’s turning a corner from the corruption and violence of the Taylor years. Maybe rounding a gentle curve, but not turning a corner.

A closer look at the results reinforces just how fragmented and non-party-based electoral competition in Liberia is.

Both houses of the legislature are elected by plurality. In the case of the Senate, each of the 15 counties elects two senators, with voters having two votes each. In the House, each county is divided into several single-seat districts, elected by first-past-the-post. The population disparities of counties (senate districts) are very large, and while the House districts are roughly apportioned by population, the key word is roughly. Some districts have under 9,000 voters, while others have over 20,000. In short, both houses are significantly malapportioned.

Although the vote by party is somewhat regionally concentrated, most candidates have won their seats with far less than a majority of the vote. The result is no real relationship between party vote strength nationally and the distirbution of seats in either house. For instance, Johnson-Sirleaf’s Unity Party (UP), with 19.8% of the first-round presidential vote, will have about 12.5% of the House seats and only 10% of the senate seats. Runner up Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), which won 28.3% of the first-round presidential vote, will have just under a quarter of the House seats and also only 10% of the Senate seats.

In Senate races, in most cases each of the larger parties ran two candidates, but elected only one of them. In fact, in only four counties were both seats won by candidates of the same party. In three of those four, the two candidates won very similar vote shares (UP in Maryland, CDC in Montserrado, APD in Sinoe), indicating that those parties in those counties have party-loyal voters. In the fourth county in which both seats went to the same party (COTOL in River Gee), the first winner won 26.9% and the second only 10.7%. That implies a strong personal vote to the first winner, and little party loyalty in the elecorate beyond this senate candidate. In fact, a candidate for Johnson-Sirleaf’s UP came in a close third in River Gee with 10.3% of the vote and the party had another candidate with 5.1%. Had the UP been able to coordinate on one candidate, it could have won a seat.

There are numerous cases where such coordination could have made a difference in the outcome. There were few cases in which a party ran only one candidate in attempt to avoid splitting its vote. Of course, given how disparate the votes are in most cases for each of a party’s two candidates, it is unlikely that one candidate could have succeeded in claiming all the votes that were cast for the actual two candidates. The personal vote, rather than the party vote, is key here.

(And a cursory look at vote totals in counties across the two houses suggests a fairly significant number of voters did not even use both senate votes–yet another indicator of candidate- rather than party-based voting.)

The result of poor coordination is that the average county-level wasted vote (any vote cast for a candidate who did not win) is over 51%.

The House, with single-seat constituencies, does not show much better coordination, even though each party, of course, nominated only one candidate. Many of the winners have only around a quarter to 30% of the vote, and some had well under 20% of their district’s vote.

The result of malapportionment, regional districting, plurality voting, and poor party coordination is a congress that can hardly be said to be representative of the political divisions of the country, given the absence of any proportional representation. Those who defend the idea of candidate-based plurality representation in divided societies often claim that parties would only reinforce those divisions, and of course they have a point. But at least a party-based proportional system ensures that the various divisions in society obtain a policy-making bargaining power commensurate to their level of support. And the CDC and UP, in particular, do have voter support in most counties (even if it is highly variable by county), but this support will not be reflected in congress. Johnson-Sirleaf’s party caucus will be highly concentrated regionally, much more so than is its actual voter support. This will force her to buy support with patronage in order to form legislative coalitions to a far greater degree than if the system were proportional.

Moreover, the supposed advantage of the plurality system in settings of regional and ethnic divisions is that at least each legislator represents his or her region. But can that be said to be the case when each legislator typically has a personal constituency that is only around a quarter of the votes cast in his or her own district?

I wish Liberians well in building a democracy. But it is hard to be optimistic given not only the legacies of civil war and Taylor’s dictatorship, but also the political fragmentation and the institutions chosen to channel it into the policy-making process.

EPILOGUE: Regarding Liberia’s alleged founding by freed slaves, it seems the story is a bit more complicated than that; however, there is a good reason for why Liberia has a county named Maryland (h/t Jones Blog).

0 thoughts on “Liberia election: Africa’s first woman president will face a deeply divided legislature

  1. Fascinating stuff. I’m not sure, though, that there’d really be much difference between candidate-based and party-based PR in the Liberian context. Liberia, like many countries in similar situations, has a weak party system – there are lots of parties, but there isn’t much ideological distinction between them and most of them are personality-based. If most of the parties are vehicles for regional bosses, then party-based PR will elect the regional bosses, and will reinforce existing ethnic and feudal power structures.

    An effective Liberian PR system would have to be one that strengthens political parties and encouarges them to compete nationally. One way to go might be the hybrid candidate and party-based system that Somaliland uses. Basically, the 2001 constitution provides that there can be no more than three national parties, and under the electoral law passed that year, those three parties would be the ones that did best in the next round of municipal elections. This meant that parties had to develop national organizations and constituencies in order to qualify, and they ahd to distinguish themselves in some way other than regional or personal loyalty. It hasn’t worked perfectly, but Somaliland now has a strong, ideologically-based national party system and is a more advanced democracy than any of its neighbors.


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