On Liberia’s road from warlord rule to democracy, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s decade-long tenure, government investment in public goods, and peaceful 2011 elections stand as milestones. In October, the country faces another critical test – its first post-civil-war democratic leadership transition, in a lively contest that has drawn more than 20 presidential candidates to replace the term-limited incumbent.
If elections are “the indispensable root of democracy” (Annan, 2012, p. 3), they can also be tightropes to walk: A successful, free, and fair election can entrench democratic gains, while a contest marred by irregularities, fraud, or violence can weaken the legitimacy of governments and democratic institutions.
Previous analysis of 2015 Afrobarometer public-opinion survey data from Liberia has shown that the country approaches its pivotal October election with a strong basis of popular faith in democracy, including support for regular and fair elections and multiparty competition (Okuru & Armah-Attoh, 2016). While dissatisfaction is high with regard to how democracy is working and how government and the economy are performing (Isbell, 2017), overwhelming majorities of Liberians say they feel free to express their views, including at the ballot box.
Even so, another look at the 2015 data raises some cautionary flags as the election campaign gains momentum, including low levels of popular trust in the National Elections Commission (NEC), significant fear of election-related violence, widespread perceptions that voters are bribed, and doubts about how well elections fulfill their function of representing voters’ views and replacing underperforming leaders.