Liberia: Last-Minute Problems Facing Elections in Liberia

Monrovia — Less than two weeks before Liberians go to the polls to elect a new president and a new legislature, a Supreme Court ruling has cast a shadow over a process that has so far been very linear.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court of Liberia ruled that the National Elections Commission (NEC) had erred by rejecting three candidates on grounds that their registration documents were incomplete. The court said the NEC must provide the disqualified contenders with sufficient time to correct the deficiencies that barred them from being on the ballot.

Included in the decision were two presidential aspirants - Marcus Jones and Cornelius Hunter, along with Isaac Johnson, who is seeking to run for the legislature. Previously, the commission had certified 22 candidates for the presidential race, the best known of which are Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former banker and United Nations official who would be Africa's first elected women head-of-state if she wins, and George Weah, a popular soccer star.

Speaking to journalists on Friday, the head of the elections commission, Frances Johnson-Morris, called the decision of the Supreme Court a "setback and an embarrassment to the process." She emphasized that the NEC does not have the power to postpone the elections, an action that she said would require the agreement of the parties to the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA), which was signed in Accra in 2003 under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas).

Another member of the commission, speaking without attribution after the press conference, suggested that the peace accord takes precedence over the Constitution and that the Supreme Court does not have primary jurisdiction over electoral issues.

According to Johnson-Morris, if the court decision stands and names of new candidates have to be added to the ballot, "elections could not be held" as scheduled. The commission reported earlier this month that the ballot papers, which were printed outside the country, had arrived and were being distributed to some 9,000 polling places nationwide, a task complicated by the rains now falling throughout the country and the poor condition of roads after 15 years of civil conflict

Johnson-Morris reported that the commission had responded to the Court decision by giving the plaintiffs instructions on what they need to provide to meet certification requirements. She said that commission members had been meeting with political parties to discuss the Court ruling but had not found a consensus of views. "Some say let the people go on the ballot and others have expressed total opposition to any possible delay," she added.

Gen. Abdulsalami Abubakar, a former Nigerian head-of-state who serves as Ecowas chief negotiator on Liberia, is reportedly planning to visit Monrovia for discussions about the controversy with the affected parties.

Reacting to the court decision during a press briefing Wednesday, the head of the United Nations Mission in Liberia, Alan Doss, said he would meet with the major donors supporting the election process to review what he called a "worrisome" development. Doss, who is also the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary General, said the implications were being discussed by the International Contact Group on Liberia, which includes the United States, Great Britain, the European Union, as well as Ecowas and the UN.

Sources close to the Commission said that even if the court ruling stands, it did not mean that the plaintiffs would automatically qualify for listing on the ballot. "They will have to go through the system like everyone else" and still could be disqualified "if we find out that there deficiencies," the source said.

Meanwhile other activities regarding the electoral process are going forward. These include large-scale civic education efforts, the distribution of voter registration cards to those whose cards are lost, as well security preparations jointly carried out by Liberian police and the United Nations Mission.

A number of international election observers have already arrived in Monrovia, and many more are expected this week.

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