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Here are three things we can learn from public opinion data about Liberia’s upcoming election

7 Oct 2017
By Kim Yi Dionne; 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.

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.

Liberians go to the polls Tuesday, Oct. 10, to elect a new president and members of the House of Representatives. Having already served two terms, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and incumbent president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is constitutionally bound to leave office.

Analysts say there is no obvious front-runner among the 20 candidates to replace her as president, but public dissatisfaction with the status quo suggests potential for a significant change on the horizon. Drawing from the May 2015 Afrobarometer survey of 1,200 adult Liberians, here is what we know:

1. Liberians are more pessimistic about the economy now than when Sirleaf took office.

Under Sirleaf, Liberian satisfaction with the country’s economic conditions and optimism about the future declined. An Afrobarometer dispatch released earlier this year shows positive attitudes about economic conditions have not just declined since 2012, but are lower than in 2008.

Afrobarometer respondents in Liberia were asked: (1) In general, how would you describe the present economic condition of this country? and (2) Would you say that the country is going in the wrong direction or going in the right direction?

One of the top three priorities for government named by Liberians in the 2015 survey was management of the economy — and citizens’ evaluations of government’s performance in managing the economy has also declined. In 2008 and 2012, about 40 percent of Liberians said the government was performing “fairly well” or “very well” in managing the economy; in 2015, only 22 percent had positive evaluations.

Liberian attitudes toward Sirleaf soured during her second term. Only a third of adults surveyed in 2015 approved of her performance, whereas her approval ratings in 2012 were nearly twice that.

2. Public approval for all politicians has declined

Sirleaf wasn’t the only politician with declining public approval, however. Fewer Afrobarometer respondents approved of the performance of their representatives and local government councillors in 2015 than in 2012; approval in 2015 even fell below 2008 levels.

Afrobarometer respondents in Liberia were asked: Do you approve or disapprove of the way that the following people have performed their jobs over the past 12 months, or haven’t you heard enough about them to say: Your member of Parliament? Your local government councillor?

While the media has focused on the crowded and unpredictable presidential contest, low approval ratings of legislators suggest there could be significant turnover among them as well.

3. A pro-poor candidate could do well.

The 2015 Afrobarometer survey does not have useful information about candidate support. While many could guess that George Weah would run for president again, and that Sirleaf’s vice president, Joseph Boakai, would run, the field of candidates was not finalized until this year. Other polls conducted since 2015 have found “huge numbers of undecided voters.”

Still, looking at Afrobarometer data by sociodemographic groups offers some relevant insights. For example, there are significant class divisions in government support.

Experience with poverty sharply divides Liberians in their optimism about Liberia’s economic conditions and the direction in which the country is headed. To measure experience with lived poverty, Afrobarometer asks survey participants how frequently they or their families went without enough food, clean water, medicine or medical care, fuel for cooking, and cash in the previous year. While Afrobarometer has shown levels of lived poverty have declined in most of the African countries where it conducts surveys, in Liberia lived poverty increased steeply.

Only 16 percent of Liberians scoring high on the lived poverty index thought the country was headed in the right direction — compared to 62 percent of Liberians who reported no experience with lived poverty in the year prior to the survey.

Likewise, only 20 percent of Liberians high on the lived poverty index expected the country’s economic conditions to improve over the year following the survey, compared to 72 percent of Liberians with no lived poverty.

Liberians with high lived poverty voted at the same rates as Liberians with no lived poverty in the previous election (among both groups, 70 percent reported voting in the last election). However, Liberians with high lived poverty significantly outnumber those with no lived poverty, making up 35 percent and 9 percent of the population, respectively. Given their greater proportion in the population, a convincing pro-poor platform could be what it takes to make it to the runoff election.