Liberian election in top court’s hands

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Liberia’s top court may have to do some fancy footwork to keep next month’s presidential elections on course, and allow President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, and some other leading candidates, to run.

The October 11 poll, meant to showcase the West African country’s steps towards stability since a 1989-2003 civil war, has been cast into doubt after a small political party challenged the right of the incumbent Johnson-Sirleaf, her main rival and four other candidates to contest the election.

At issue is a constitutional clause that appears to require that all presidential candidates be residents of Liberia for 10 years prior to the poll — a requirement that if enforced would eliminate many of Liberia’s leading politicians, Reuters reports.
“The election is in jeopardy unless some legal argument is found by the court to allow it to go forward,” Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst at Damina Advisors, said.
“If the Supreme Court doesn’t waive (the requirement) all of them will have to stand down for a new set of candidates,” he said.

Analysts said a decision to bar the six candidates could delay the elections for months and raise the risk of street unrest, but added that waiving the clause could undermine the legitimacy of the next president.

Court officials said a decision will be made next Tuesday, exactly two weeks before the vote is scheduled.

A smooth election in the impoverished and war-torn state is seen as key to boosting international investment into its burgeoning mining and energy sectors.

TIGHT SPOT?

Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female head of state in 2005 — when the country waived the residency requirements for the U.N.-sponsored elections to allow more candidates to run in the wake of the war.

Like many in Liberia’s political elite, Johnson-Sirleaf had left the country for years during the fighting, returning only in 2003 after it stopped.

She has enjoyed broad international support for her efforts at rebuilding Liberia since, and she is considered a favourite in the polls which would pit her against rivals Winston Tubman and former rebel leader Prince Johnson.

But Johnson-Sirleaf, who has gone back on a 2005 campaign promise not to run for a second mandate, may now have landed herself in a tight spot by failing to address the constitutional residency requirements sooner.

Johnson-Sirleaf’s government put the issue to a vote in an August referendum, seeking to shrink the residency requirement to five years from 10 and also to delay the October poll until November, after the rainy season.

The referendum proposals were turned down.
“I think the government expected the referendum to pass,” said Hannah Koep, head of Africa analysis for Control Risks.
“What Johnson-Sirleaf was proposing was not highly controversial…they were good proposals. But it backfired.”

Turnout for the referendum was around 40 percent, many votes were deemed invalid, and the poll was blighted by a misprint on the ballots — leading analysts to assume the outcome was more about poor preparation than a political signal to Johnson-Sirleaf’s government.
“The misjudgment was about timing,” said Lydie Boka, head of risk consultancy StrategiCo. “The referendum should not have been held this year.”

The Movement for Progressive Change political party launched the legal challenge to the candidates’ eligibility after the referendum failed.

LOOSE WORDING

Analysts said the failure of the referendum proposals and the subsequent legal challenge had put the Supreme Court into the difficult position of weighing the integrity of the constitution against keeping the election on track.

But the court has shown a bent for practicality in the past, disregarding a Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendation in 2009 that Johnson-Sirleaf and many others in the political establishment be banned from public office for their roles in the 14-year-long civil war.

Johnson-Sirleaf has admitted to providing food, supplies and financing to rebel leader and alleged war criminal Charles Taylor during the early years of the war.
“So far, nothing has come of it,” said Koep of the commission’s report. “In such a highly politicised environment, I think the (Supreme Court) will choose a similar middle way (with the current challenge to her eligibility).”

It may prove reasonably easy for the court to find a loophole, given the loose wording of the residency clause — but it will come at political cost, analysts said.

The clause states the candidates are ineligible unless they have been “resident in the Republic 10 years prior to his election, provided that the president and the vice-president shall not come from the same county”.
“I think that, given what is at stake, the Supreme Court will consider a waiver,” Boka said. “Something showing that indeed the rule of law is becoming a reality, but that Liberia’s reconstruction efforts should be given priority.”
“I don’t think the electorate would mind hugely about the legal and technical issues (if a waiver were granted). But the whole controversy could be used as a political tool by opposition parties after the election to undermine the legitimacy of the newly elected president,” said Koep.