Liberia has an important transition of power on the horizon. Here’s a preview.

22 Oct 2016

Originally posted on Monkey Cage Blog.

  Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.

In just under a year from today, Liberia will hold an election that will mark the first post-war presidential transition. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate (2011) who has led the country since 2003, will step down in 2018.

Sirleaf is not running in the 2017 election because Liberia’s 1986 constitution limits presidents to serving two terms. While some raised concerns she might attempt a third term, she emphatically said ahead of the 2011 election that her second term would be her last — citing her age, the constitution, and the will of Liberian people as why a third term would be “out of the question.” Political scientist Boniface Dulani’s research on citizen attitudes toward presidential term limits across Africa shows very strong support for term limits among Liberians.

Who are the major contenders?

The candidate from Sirleaf’s political party — Unity Party (UP) — is her vice president, Joseph Boakai. Earlier this month, Boakai was in the United States and met with many Liberians in the diaspora. Although the diaspora cannot vote from abroad, it plays an important role in elections, whether through direct financial support to campaigns or indirectly through influencing the votes of friends and family back in Liberia. Boakai’s U.S. visit is consistent with Liberian election campaigning; in fact, most Liberian presidential candidates announce their candidacy when in the United States, not Liberia.

UP has significant support in the country, but Boakai’s election to succeed Sirleaf in the presidency is not guaranteed. The final candidate list will not be published until August 2017, so we do not yet know the entire field of challengers.

Nonetheless, some candidates have already announced their intention to run, including senator and ex-footballer George Weah, a candidate of the primary opposition party, Congress for Democratic Change (CDC). Weah was a candidate in the 2005 presidential election, when he won the most votes in the first round, but ultimately lost in a head-to-head runoff election against Sirleaf.

What do citizens think?

Today Afrobarometer published a new dispatch, “Approaching presidential transition, Liberians supportive and critical of their democracy.” The dispatch details findings from surveys conducted in Liberia in May 2015. Afrobarometer has been conducting surveys in Liberia since 2008, so the dispatch examines trends across three waves of data: 2008, 2012 and 2015.

The key findings in the Afrobarometer dispatch suggest a cautious optimism about what the 2017 election means for deepening democracy in Liberia. Two-thirds of citizens interviewed prefer democracy to any other form of government and large majorities reject one-party rule.

At the same time, citizens were critical of the quality of Liberia’s democracy, with only half of those surveyed (53 percent) saying the country was a “full democracy” or a “democracy with minor problems.” Likewise, half of those surveyed were unsatisfied with the way democracy works in Liberia.

In the same survey, Liberians were asked which party they would support if the election were held “tomorrow.” Because there are many political parties in Liberia, no single party enjoys a majority of support.

Only 14 percent of Liberians said they would support Sirleaf and Boakai’s UP. Weah’s party enjoyed more than double that, with 32 percent of Liberians saying in May 2015 that if an election were held the next day that they would vote for CDC. No other party garnered support from more than 9 percent of those surveyed. (And 11 percent said they didn’t know whom they would vote for.)

What does this mean for 2017?

While we can use the 2015 survey data to measure party support, it cannot account for differences in party resources. Sirleaf’s 2011 campaign was significantly better financed than the CDC candidate’s, and while he’s not an incumbent, Boakai is already enjoying some advantage in being the incumbent vice president and in being the candidate of the ruling party. It’s too early to assess Boakai’s ability to turn that advantage into endorsements from key elites in Liberia.

Liberia’s next election is a critical test. It offers the potential for the ruling party to change, which would act for many political analysts as a marker of continued democratic development in Liberia.