9 October 2017

Africa: The 2017 Liberian Presidential Election, Who Will Win?

Photo: Emmanuel Tobey/MINUL
(file photo)
analysis

The 2017 presidential and legislative elections are by all accounts one of the most crowded and anxiety-producing, and the most consequential in Liberia's 170-year history.

This article is a culmination of six weeks of reading and conversations with journalists, political strategists, pundits, and average voters about the candidates and the presidential election process. However, I am not making a prediction or forecast, but offering an analysis based on the facts that emerged from the mentioned activities.

I will limit my analyses to the top four out of the 20 candidates, according to my sources: Joseph Boakai, Charles Brumskine, Alexander Cummings, and George Weah. But, there will be indirect references to a few other candidates.

The incumbent, Vice President Joseph Boakai, looks to be punished at the polls for uncontrolled corruption, youth unemployment, and bad economic times. Because of high rates of despondency, and 12 years of recycling cabinet appointees who stuffed their pockets in Liberia and their bank accounts abroad, Unity Party will face formidable hurdles in extending its hold on power beyond two terms. Liberian voters seem to be myopic when it comes to 'bread and butter issues,' in effect asking the ruling party, "what have you done for me lately?"

The UP is enjoying the apparent advantages that come with being a governing party. Reinforced by state resources, intense class, and tribal loyalties, Boakai is the candidate to beat in this race. Despite a vociferous pushback from opposition parties, Boakai appears positioned to capture the lion share of tomorrow's ballots. The party has been boosted by the changing composition of the electorate over the last decade, most notably the increase in the youth population bulge. Though, they are spread throughout the political landscape.

Unity Party is the clear favorite of the over 65 age cohort, many of whom were active or in government during the dictatorship of Samuel Doe. Boakai is viewed as being experienced and wise, with a temperament that fits the job. While his age offers a sense of stability to the older generation, it is a turnoff to the 'lost generation' of Liberians many of whom came of age during the civil war and are now yearning for generational change.

The UP stands to dominate in Lofa, Gbarpolu, Bong, Bomi, Cape Mount, Gbarpolu and has now added Grand Gedeh to its spheres of influence. Margibi's votes might be shared between Boakai, Benoni Urey, and Brumskine while Prince Johnson may gain most of the votes cast in Nimba, but will not win with a landslide like in previous elections.

Counselor Charles Brumskine is a serial presidential contender, but this time doesn't look any better than the last two election cycles he has run for the Executive Mansion. The Liberty Party candidate lauds his experience as former president pro tempore of the Liberian Senate during the tumultuous years of the Charles Taylor administration. He resigned his seat after a falling out with Taylor. Ever since then he has tried to catch in on the notoriety that he garnered by publicly feuding with warlord Taylor, hoping that Liberians would reward him by electing him, president. But on the eve of the presidential election, Brumskine appears to be opening some daylight between him and other candidates.

As a lawyer for Mittal-Steel, the multinational behemoth that operates in his home county of Grand Bassa, many people see Brumskine as one who puts the interest of his wealthy client ahead of theirs. He has high unfavorable ratings and understood by much as arrogant and standoffish. But at 66, he is relatively young with an exuberance youth leadership that buoys his Liberty Party.

The LP might not gain enough votes for a second round but will be in the top five of vote-getters. Though, Brumskine might reap high vote numbers in Nimba, Rivercess, and Grand Bassa. But, the CDC will vehemently contest for the Bassa vote with help from Gbenzongar Findley, whose own reelection bid had a disastrous outcome more than two years ago.

The word on the street is the former Coca-Cola executive Alexander Cummings has no chance of winning. It is because people cannot imagine it happening. They say Cummings of the Alternative National Congress party is a newcomer to Liberia's turbulent political scene. He came in too late. A vote for him is a waste. It is not his time; he has not 'paid his dues' as the other candidates have, which some see as a good thing because he has not worked for the government before and is not a 'legacy' politician who is tainted by corruption. But are people in a bubble that may burst on October 10?

Once hopelessly behind, Cummings seems to have pulled within striking distance over the last three weeks, but he will need a last-minute miracle to secure a spot in the coveted second round. He has a loyal caravan of young professional women supporting him because they "believe in his capacity to make real change happen," adding, that is why they gave him the moniker "Talk 'N Do" which is plastered on their Facebook and WhatsApp pages. Many voters love Cummings, but because of his perceived 'late' entrance in the race, some see him as not strong enough to knockout Boakai or Weah in the first round, so some voters are ambivalent about casting their vote for him.

There is another possible theory advanced by Cummings' supporters - If Weah were not in the race, Cummings would easily have defeated Boakai. They cannot stomach the thought of a George Weah presidency, so they are voting for Boakai because they believe he is the only bulwark against an incompetent Weah from becoming the president of Liberia.

Cummings has the edge in the southeast, but Mills Jones and Weah might be on his heels for votes in Sinoe and Grand Kru Counties, respectively. Montoserrado is proverbially seen as the 'elephant meat,' and the ANC will reap some of the spoils.

Senator George Weah's third go-around for the presidency and vice presidency has gained significant attention due to the cult-like following because of his football playing ability, but many electorates who I have spoken to say he is unfit to govern. So, an outright Coalition for Democratic Change victory in the first round seems unlikely.

However, I must warn that there may be "social desirability bias" going on as well - the idea that voters will tell anyone asking whatever reason they think will reflect positively upon them. Many people won't publicly admit they are voting for Weah; citizens' expectations of who is likely to win the presidential election can be more predictive than their responses to questions on how they intend to vote.

I will not hearten those looking for certainty in Tuesday's vote. The full structure of Liberia politics shows no sign of being undermined or even sharply altered by the candidacy of Weah. The polarization of our electoral ecosystem in 2017 is strikingly like that of 2011 and 2005. A Weah victory may be unimaginable to many, but it is not impossible. The outcome of this extraordinary election will not be based on crowd sizes and social media chatters.

Saturation media coverage about Weah's refusal to participate in the presidential debates (confirming his lack of grasp of the issues), poor performance in the Senate, have taken a severe toll on his public standing. His candidacy provokes intense emotions. So much so that many in the small Liberian intelligentsia are troubled by Weah's inadequacies and will do all in their powers to ensure that the presidency is beyond his reach. Despite the intense support he enjoys at massive rallies from his diehard supporters, and on social media, Weah is also profoundly unpopular in the diaspora - and widely viewed by an even more significant segment of the population as temperamentally unsuited to be commander-in-chief.

One of the downsides of the fractured social media landscape is that it's easier than ever to sit in an echo chamber or filter bubble and preach to the converted. People believe what they want to think, and so do those on the airwaves, Facebook, and Twitter. My grandfather used to say: "If someone's mind is made up, you can't convince them with the facts." People are convinced that their man will win.

The CDC seems to have maintained a consistent lead in metropolitan Monrovia while making inroads in large population centers outside of the capital city. Sinoe and Weah's native Grand Kru might fall in the CDC column.

One thing is sure; no party will garner enough votes for an outright win. Therefore, the two likely candidates to go on to the second round may be CDC's Weah and UP's Boakai, setting the stage for a fierce battle. However, Brumskine and Cummings are the two "dark horses" in this race and should not be written off. Both men can conceivably rise to the second round.

The optics of hosting massive rallies by all four political parties have been impressive. Unfortunately, the various campaigns have relied too much on anecdotal evidence like crowding streets and stadiums with their supporters when looking to measure progress and have been lulled into a false sense of winning. Many political parties have assumed, often wrongly, that the echo effect of being surrounded by big, boisterous crowds of already converted voters automatically translates into victory. But how they turn those large crowds into votes for their candidates may be the strategy that wins the election.

However, if Boakai and Weah go to second-round voting, two scenarios are likely to play out. Situation One: Boakai could win because of Weah's high unfavourability ranking among crucial voting blocs. Many people will close their nose and vote for Boakai to avoid a Weah presidency. To avoid this scenario, Weah will have to win in the first round by 51%, which is highly unlikely and prevent the second round, but that may be the only way the CDC might stop a severe spanking by the UP.

Situation Two: Weah could win because Liberians are tired of the UP leadership and failed policies. But he will have to rely on support from the parties that do not make the second round, so this will test how politically savvy his negotiation skills are which will be critical to winning in the second round.

The context of this election apart from the candidates and their campaign is mixed but probably nets out as a small opposition advantage. After a decade of the UP running the country with no improvement in people's circumstance, voters are hankering for change - whatever that might mean to them.

Could Boakai and Weah cancel out each other and introduce another candidate? It is possible, and the 'wild card' candidate may be Cummings. If he gets to the second round with either Boakai or Weah or Brumskine, for that matter, Cummings will defeat them. No candidate may be able to beat Cummings in the second round because he has the momentum and the money. The key for him, though, is getting to the run-off, which of course, is a tall order.

That is why get-out-the-vote efforts become an imperative. Depending on the voter turnout, a party may win or lose, and that is why it is critical that the political leaders urge their supporters to come out in large numbers to vote. The party that goes the extra mile in facilitating ways and means by which its partisans show up to vote in their respective polling stations like providing transportation and water will be the ultimate game changer.

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