Liberia to Conduct National Referendum Ahead 2011 Elections

By Nathan N. Mulbah – The National Elections Commission (NEC) of Liberia has announced that despite earlier pronouncement that it will not  conduct national referendum it has now made a volt-face to go ahead and conduct a referendum to amend four provisions of the 1986 Liberian Constitution.

Making the pronouncement on Tuesday, September 21, 2011, at the Commission’s Headquarters in Monrovia, the Chairman of the Commission, James M. Fromayan said after discussions with key partners and major stakeholders, the commission has decided to conduct a referendum that will effect changes in some provisions of the constitution that are dammed problematic to electioneering.

Chairman Fromayan named the provisions to be tested in the ensuing referendum as:  Article 83 (b), Article 83 (a) and Article 52 (c). Also to be tested in the referendum is a request for change in the time for retirement of the Chief Justice and Associate Justices of the Supreme Court from 70 years   to 75 years.

Article 83 (b), viewed as the most problematic, was suspended under the Accra Comprehensive Peace Accord during the 2005 elections. Since the restoration of the utilization of the constitution in totality, all provisions suspended then are now applicable. Hence, it is argued that should Article 83 (b) remain on the statute as is, there will be an avalanche of run-off elections which is cost prohibitive. In the words of Chairman Fromayan, cost for run-off for all elected post is about 65% of the elections budget. The 2011 election budget is put at US$69 million. Since the restoration of the full use of the Constitution in 2005, the NEC has conducted nine by-elections and all has to be decided by a run-off with serious cost attached.

Article 83 (b) states that “All elections of public officers shall be determined by an absolute majority of the vote cast. If no candidate obtains an absolute majority in the first ballot, a second ballot shall be conducted on the second Tuesday following. The two candidates who received the greatest numbers of the votes on the first ballot shall be designated to participate in the run-off election”. But if amended through the referendum, the absolute majority clause will only apply to the Presidency while all other elected posts will be based on “First Pass the Post” or simple majority.

The other provision to be tested in the referendum, Article 83 (a), will lead to a change in the tine for the conduct of national elections from the second Tuesday in October to the second Tuesday in November. Liberia currently enjoys six-year tenure of office for the presidency.

Also to be tested and perhaps the most controversial is Article 52 (c) which requires that a candidate for the presidency should be a resident in the Republic of Liberia ten years prior to his election. Now it will be tested in a referendum whether the ten years should be cut down to five years.

Earlier, NEC Chairman hinted that it would have been farfetched to conduct referendum on the various constitutional provisions, citing time and logistics. But at a press conference on Tuesday, Mr. Fromayan said a referendum was now possible with an infusion of funds for manpower and logistics. In keeping with Article 91 of the Liberian Constitution, the referendum should be held one year from the time it was passed on by the National Legislature. In this case, the Legislature acted on the propositions in August 2010 so it is expected that a referendum will be held in August 2011.

Two years ago, about nine propositions were forwarded to the Legislature for action leading to amendment but only four were passed on.

With this new variable now introduced and the release of the time line for the conduct of the 2011 Presidential and General elections, Liberians are bracing themselves for two major political events running back to back with the referendum coming just two months before the national elections slated for October 2011.

These two political challenges unfolding simultaneously portends a serious challenge and a Herculean task for the electoral management body of the West African state with a potential voting populace of 2.1 million people.

The 2008 national census recalled a total population of about 3,476,608. Of that amount, it is believed that about 75% are illiterate.

Democracy in Liberia is not yet fully mediatised and so civic/voter education initiatives must use non traditional method owing to the massive illiteracy and poor communication infrastructure, educating voters to understand the implications of the exercise for their participation is critical to the two processes.