31 October 2005

Liberia: Campaigning in Liberia's Run-Off Presidential Race Is Underway

Monrovia — Campaigning for the run-off election in Liberia on November 8 for the presidency has begun at a lower volume than the first round, when hundreds of thousands of supporters of the 22 presidential candidates and the 780 legislative candidates took to the streets, waving posters and banners and creating a carnival-like atmosphere in this war-ravaged capital. This time, the two remaining contenders for the presidency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, 66, of the Unity Party (UP) and George 'Opong' Manneh Weah, 39, from the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) launched their campaigns in a quieter manner. Sirleaf, who is a former finance minister, banker and senior United Nations official, is scheduled to meet Weah, a political novice who was an international soccer star, in a live radio debate on November 3.

The first weekend of the second round was mostly a battle of press releases, with each party encouraging those who joined their ranks to go on the air and pledge public support. Weah's CDC received backing from former presidential contenders Alhaji Kromah, Varney Sherman, Togbana Tipoteh and Winston Tubman, while Nathaniel Barnes, Joseph Woah-Tee, Joseph Korto, and David Farhat joined Sirleaf's camp.

The most notable endorsements Sirleaf has received so far may be those from leading members of the National Patriotic Party (NPP), the former ruling party founded by the deposed and exiled president Charles Taylor. These include the party chairman, Emiritus Cyril Allen, and former information minister Reginald Goodridge. Since she announced that she would not ask for a war crimes tribunal to be instituted in Liberia, Sirleaf has also received support from several former generals of the Taylor regime. With its network still intact, the former ruling party could have a decisive impact on the second round.

Support for Sirleaf from the Taylor camp represents a sharp about-face in Liberian politics. In the last presidential election of 1997, Sirleaf emerged as Taylor's chief opponent and sharpest critic, coming in a distant second after many Liberians apparently concluded Taylor would resume fighting if he lost. In 2003, the NPP was instrumental in blocking Sirleaf from being named to head the transitional government, casting the decisive vote to put Gyude Bryant in the post.

On the opening day of official campaigning, Weah went to Nimba, the county with the second largest voters roll, while Sirleaf went to her party headquarters in the business district of downtown Monrovia. She gave a spirited speech, interrupted many times by supporters. It was meant to be a press conference, but she finally read a speech - a rarity in this campaign because the UP candidate prefers to speak directly to her audience without a written text.

At the Unity Party campaign opener, Sirleaf was joined by a group of women who have put their marks on recent Liberian history. She was flanked by Ruth Perry, who served as interim head of state in 1996 and 1997, D. Museleng Cooper, a former foreign minister and member of the NPP executive bureau, and by Jewel Howard-Taylor, the exiled leader's wife and former first lady who was recently elected to a senatorial seat from her native Bong county.

On Friday evening, the police arrested two youths who were allegedly planning to set fire to the Unity Party campaign headquarters. The CDC said it had never provided the two with the ID cards they were carrying and added that the party had admonished its partisans to avoid acts of violence.

Many alliances that were put together for the sake of the elections disintegrated after the first round, with parties or partisans from various coalitions choosing different directions. For example, a day after he announced that he was joining Weah's CDC, Tubman, the fourth-place finisher, was met by a number of defections from his National Democratic Party of Liberia (NDPL), including his running mate, who broke away to join Sirleaf's UP. Similarly, the vice-presidential candidate of the Alliance for Peace and Democracy (APD), Marcus Dahn, along with the national campaign manager of the alliance, H. Boima Fahnbulleh, broke ranks with the party's standard bearer, Tipoteh, and also signed on with the UP. While Alaric Togba of the New Deal went to the CDC, the secretary general of that party issued a statement urging partisans to support whichever candidate they preferred.

Charles W. Brumskine, the Liberty Party candidate who made a stronger showing than many had expected and finished a strong third, finally accepted the results of the race last week, after first raising questions about their validity. Following meetings with both Sirleaf and Weah, he said that he would not support either candidate and asked his partisans to make their own choice.

Brumskine's decision to remain neutral turns Grand Bassa County into a key electoral battleground. With 54,507 registered voters, the county ranks fifth after Montserrado (340,850), Nimba (127,837), Bong (105,661) and Margibi (71,444). In the first round, Brumskine received more than 38,000 ballots there, leaving Weah with 11,500 and Sirleaf with about 4,000. Weah carried Montserrado, which includes Monrovia, as well as Nimba and Margibi, while Tubman dominated in Bong.

To cast a ballot on October 11, many Liberians had to brave torrential rains. This time, voters will have to endure heat and stifling humidity, with the dry season moving in and the thermometer reaching near-90 degree temperatures on many days. Voter fatigue could also be a problem for the candidates. Many Liberians are now saying that they may decide to stay home because their favored candidate is no longer in the race.

In the end, the outcome likely will hinge on which candidate manages to carry Nimba and Grand Bassa counties and succeeds in galvanizing support from those who backed other parties last time around.

UPDATE: Weah Refuses to Accept Invitation to Debate


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