We have about 18 registered political parties, and 8 more have filed petitions. We are likely to see more filings from candidates who are expected to loose in their respective party conventions, primaries or Caucasus. Many of these candidates have the mentality that they must run for the presidency at any cost. We know that these political parties are just individuals clothed in large costumes. I think Liberia should consider some sort of qualifying measures to reduce the number of candidates and allow for some meaningful debate and comparison between candidates. But we must do it without undermining anyone’s constitutional prerogative to run. So each of my suggestions meets the minimum test of international standard and is based on “best practices.”
Cllr. Frances Johnson-Morris
Chair, National Elections Commission
It has now become increasingly clear that the NEC is going to rely only on voter registration to conduct the elections, and so, it is going to issue voter registration cards. I am hopeful that the voter registration cards will be photo stamped. As in Afghanistan, the NEC can require candidates for the presidency to collect and present to the NEC 10,000 photo stamped voter registration cards nationally as a minimum requirement to be placed on the ballot. The deadline for the voter registration cards should be six month prior to elections. Some Liberians want to go even further to suggest that such a process be done on a per county basis; they recommend 5,000 photo stamped voter registration cards per county. Mr. Eastman Kanneh, a former President of the Lofa County Association, argued that “these candidates need to know the conditions under which the people in the various counties are living. There is no better way to do that than require them to visit these places to copy voter registration cards. Some of these people will probably never step a foot in Cape Palmas or Zorzor if they were lucky to pull of a win.”
While I agree with Mr. Kanneh in principle, a requirement on a per county basis would be an unbearable burden at this time, especially given the security situation and infrastructural impediments. In the future, we can adopt such a requirement. But for now, I believe a 10,000 photo stamped voter registration cards would allow each candidate to demonstrate some minimum level of support. If they lack this support, they should stop wasting people’s time.
Second, Provision 44 of Afghanistan’s Election Law requires candidates to pay a registration fee in the equivalent of US$1,000. Ms. Morris’ NEC has proposed a US$5,000 registration fee. I would prefer an amount that is similar to Afghanistan, which is approximately $1000. We don’t need to make this election purely about money. The NEC needs to find alternative sources to finance the Commission’s activities. It should not conduct the election on the backs of the candidates, some of whom are rather poor. The Liberian Constitution does not specifically prescribe a numerical dollar amount for registration, so we have to exercise reasonable judgment. I believe that a $5,000 filing fee would limit the ability of well-meaning candidates, who were unable to leave Liberia to earn a better living elsewhere, to fully participate in their body politic. We need this election to be issue driven.
Instead, what the NEC needs to do is to have each candidate demonstrate a minimum level of support to be on the ballot. I am convinced that a rule requiring a certain number of copies of voter registration will do the trick. A high monetary threshold would only foster resentment and potential problems down the road. We don’t want Liberians to think that this election is only for the people with money. A poor person can convince friends and families to collect voter registration cards on a pro bono basis, but they are less likely to get $5,000. Yes, it would cost money to copy the voter registration cards. But again, it is not a direct monetary requirement, and it is fair and balanced. At the end of the day, it is about getting the voter registration cards to the NEC in time to be placed on the ballot. Candidates with money can hire paid consultants to collect the cards on their behalf while poorer candidates can take advantage of the grass roots process to meet the requirement. But this choice does not exist with a high monetary requirement, especially in a country where a typical person lives on less than a dollar a day.
Third, in Afghanistan, all candidates
for public office were required to resign their public
or military post 75 days prior to the election date.
This stipulation was necessary to prevent individuals
from taking advantage of their government power. We
should do something similar in Liberia, and ask all
candidates for public office to resign their respective
posts nine months prior to the election. Presidential
candidate Varney Sherman has already begun that process.
Mr. Sherman has resigned his position as Chairman
of the Board of Directors of LPRC. Mr. Sherman should
also resign from any other government post including
serving as Special Envoy to Chairman Bryant.
I believe that all other candidates for public office, especially the presidency and Congress, should also follow suit and resign their positions, whether paid or unpaid. It would be unfair to candidate Sherman to resign his posts in government while other candidates remain in their government positions until elections day. That includes Board Memberships and heads of Independent Commissions. The NEC should make all resignations effective January 1, 2005. That is roughly nine months prior to the elections. All government vehicles and properties associated with these positions should be returned. The bottom line is that the NEC should not allow anyone seeking public office to indirectly finance his/her campaign on the backs of the tax payers. The candidates should assume the risk of losing their jobs when they decide to run for public office.
Fourth, Article 52 of the Constitution requires that a candidate for the office of President or Vice President must be a natural born Liberian citizen of not less than 35 years of age. There is no question that most of those running are over 35. But there is a serious question about whether some of these candidates are Liberian citizens. Some Liberians have become U.S. or European citizens, but they still want to participate in Liberian politics. That is well and good, but there is no provision for dual citizenship between Liberia and America, or the E.U. In the new government, this is an issue that I believe that the Legislature and the new President should address. For now, the NEC should enforce this constitutional provision vigorously. If a person wishes to hold high Liberian office, then he better be a Liberian citizen. In any case, the NEC can submit the lists of presidential, senate and house candidates to the U.S., the E.U. and other governments for validation.
I am sure that these foreign governments would be more than willing to assist the NEC to curb cheating in this upcoming elections. It would be prohibitive for the NEC to do such a check on all the people who will vote in the elections, estimated somewhere around a million. A narrower list focusing on just the candidates is doable. Anyone who is interested in representing the people of Liberia should be prepared to wager their U.S. or European citizenship. Not only is it the right thing to do, it is also the legal thing. I just hope that the NEC and NTLA agree. Undoubtedly the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will be more than willing to instruct its Immigration and Naturalization Service to do a quick background check on the presidential and congressional candidates. All Commissioner Morris needs to do is to require all candidates for President and Congress to sign a form, under the punishment of perjury, that they don’t hold citizenship in another country other than Liberia. Based on each candidate declaration, the NEC can them submit the list to the various foreign governments, beginning with the United States and those of the European Union.
So, we cannot make these elections a free ride in a fancy car. We also cannot make Liberia the only country where anyone who wants to become president is placed on the ballot. We need to set some standards that are acceptable in a democratic society, and that is what I have done. These suggestions don’t undermine anyone’s constitutional prerogative to run for president or any other public office. People have the right to run for any public office, but they don’t have the right to be placed on the ballot without demonstrating some minimum requirements.
Financial Reporting and Disclosure by the
parties and candidates
We have a severe information deficit. But we need more information. The public needs information from the candidates. The press needs information from the candidates. We can rest assured that the candidates are not going to open their personal “books” for public review without probing. But the one institution that can force them to do it is the NEC. The NEC does not need to reinvent the wheel or go on a witch-hunt. Most of what we need from the candidates is already specified in the constitution. We just need to follow our own “rules” for once. We just need to implement them. I have presented a few of these issues in this section.
First, we need to have a clean election that is devoid of much influence peddling. The Liberian Constitution, Article 82, limits or regulates political contributions and activities of foreign entities, Liberian businesses and labor unions. The Constitution restricts contributions and participation of these entities and requires disclosure. The constitution also limits parties and campaigns from holding money outside of Liberia and requires that all contributions from outside the country must be from Liberians. Furthermore, the Constitution provides for audits of campaigns and parties by an impartial certified public accountant. These articles are designed to reduce corruption and influence peddling.
The NEC needs to figure out ways to enforce these Constitutional provisions. It can adopt the American model and require campaigns and parties to submit monthly or quarterly financial disclosures to the NEC that itemizes the sources of funds and expenditures. This information can be made public on the NEC Website, private websites and in the local press.
The U.S. Federal Election Commission's Web site (www.fec.gov) discloses this type of information. On the FEC Website, you can find individuals and various committees that have given money to candidates for Federal Office. Another good Web site to model is www.opensecrets.org. We can do the same in Liberia. We just need the information to put on the Web sites and in the dailies. So the NEC should mandate monthly disclosure of campaign finance activities. Following the money trail is one way to know how each candidate is politically aligned, and which business donors are violating the law.
Second, Liberia has had a bad experience with corruption. We have had presidents and government officials who assumed office with modest means, but leave office with tens or hundreds of millions tucked away in foreign banks, while the vast majority of the people live on less than a dollar a day. We can reduce the stealing of public funds through initial and periodic disclosure of private assets by public officials. One of the by products of the “War on Terror” has been more transparency in international and embassy private banking; this financial disclosure requirement should make it more difficult for crooked officials to hide their ill gotten gains. Article 52 of the Constitution requires that a candidate for the office of President or Vice President must be the owner of unencumbered real property valued at not less than twenty-five thousand dollars. Equally importantly, the candidate for public office must be a taxpayer. Article 83 of the Constitution requires campaigns candidates to disclose their assets and liabilities (net worth) thirty days prior to the election. The principle of full disclosure is well represented in Constitution. It is high time we fellow the rules.
I believe that the property value requirement tends to exclude poorer rural populations and ensures continued control by urban oligarchy. But that is what the Constitution demands. As a believer in the Constitution, I suggest that we keep that provision. I am sure presidential candidates can use either an appraisal process based on a comparable analysis, or a cash flow valuation method to estimate the value of a candidate’s real property value. I have nothing to indicate that the NEC is not going to enforce this provision, or the provision that requires all candidates to disclose their net worth. In addition, I also think each candidate should be required to disclose their five year tax returns from Liberia or anywhere else. These things are done in America and elsewhere.
For example, we know how much President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, former presidential candidate John Kerry and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards made in 2003 and their respective estimated net worth. The Center for Public Integrity, http://www.publicintegrity.org, has collected details of both candidates' incomes and assets. We can do it in Liberia too. No excuses! No exceptions! It is wrong for us to live in America and enjoy the freedom and transparency, and not want to implement them in Liberia. In my judgment, we don’t have to be like Americans. But there is no reason that we cannot adopt the good things about America. In fact, transparency in public life should be the standard for all governments. There is no better time to adopt a more rigorous standard than now. We have laws on the book. We just need to find the political will to implement them.
A Run-off for the top two vote getters
This suggestion is kind of a defense mechanism. We have 43 plus people who are eyeing the presidency. It is likely that the list of candidates will decrease as we approach elections day. But no one should be under the illusion that the list will dwindle to a manageable level. In Afghanistan, a country of about 25 million people, there were 18 qualified candidates and the international community spent about $200 million on the election. Even with such a large population, many independent observers argued that 18 candidates were just too many. Now think about Liberia, a much smaller country, with more than 43 plus candidates.
The victorious candidate is likely to win far less than 50% of the votes. It would give the winner no mandate to rule. Facing a similar situation, The Joint Election Management Board decided to incorporate into Afghanistan’s elections law that the winner must receive 51% of the votes, or else a run off would take place between the two top candidates. Article 83 of the Liberian Constitution provides for a run off election of the top two vote getters, assuming that no single candidate received more than 50% of the vote. I would suggest we enforce this constitutional provision and have the runoff on the first Tuesday in December 2005. That would give us sufficient time to count the votes to meet the deadline for inauguration in January.
Liberia is at a critical crossroads. For over 150 years, we have not accomplished much of anything that we can be proud of as a nation. We have a historic opportunity to make things right in Liberia. We have to put principle above money and competition for government jobs. We can do that by demonstrating a clear commitment through establishing standards that meet international best practices around the world. Conducting this election by “hook or crook” will only lead us to repeat history. We need a clean cut with the past. We need a new start. Ms. Morris NEC, the INLA, the candidates and more importantly the Liberian people have to make the necessary sacrifices to avoid a repeat of the past elections.
This is just my two cents worth of advice. It is unsolicited. It is unpaid for. So take or leave. But we all are better off in the long term when we face the reality that we need reasonable standards and enforcement mechanisms to build fully functioning democratic institutions. Unfortunately, the Executive Branch, the NEC and the INLA just reached an agreement on the election laws as I was finished this piece. The only good thing is that most of what I proposed is already in the Constitution. The only critical question is that can Ms. Morris enforcement them? I guess time will tell. But in the mean time, we have to push harder so that we can set a new standard in Liberia. Everyone is concerned about the growing list of presidential candidates, and the INLA, NEC, and the Executive Mansion have produced election laws that leave the problem intact.