A Political Crisis Is Looming Over The Delay In Enacting The Legislative Threshold And Other Related Electoral Bills

By: Abraham L. James

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
June 23, 2009


During the last few months many individuals at home and abroad have expressed special concerns about the Electoral Threshold Bill currently before the House of Representatives. Unless the bill is passed, in time, the presidential and legislative elections scheduled to be held in 2011, and the constitutional referendum that is being arranged to take place in connection with the elections will not be held. The development could lead to a major Political crisis, which should be avoided.

Last year the Chairman of the National Elections Commission (NEC), Honorable James Fromoyan issued a warning coupled with an appeal for the passage into law of the Electoral Threshold Bill and other electoral reform bills before the national legislature. The NEC is constitutionally vested with authority to carry out the responsibility of delimiting electoral constituencies and preparing the country for the presidential and legislative elections to be held In 2011. The agency is also responsible, along with others, to arrange the constitutional referendum that will take place in conjunction with the elections. Both the elections and the referendum will require a great deal of preparation to ensure appropriate participation of citizens throughout the country and the Diaspora. Many individuals and agencies have expressed concern about the Liberia, Ms. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the United Nations Secretary General Special Representative to Liberia, Ms. Margaret Log, among others in Liberia and abroad.

Defining Events

The 2011 elections and the proposed constitutional referendum are expected to be defining events in Liberia’s constitutional democracy. They will help to consolidate and deepen important aspects of the Liberian governance system. Citizens will have an opportunity to participate in the first general elections since the coming into power of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf administration and the introduction of new style of constitutional democracy in Liberia .

Significance of the Referendum

The authors of the 1986 Constitution were aware that changes would be needed from time to time if the document was to endure and keep pace with the growth of the nation. They were also conscious that the process of change should not be facile, permitting ill-conceived and hastily passed amendments. By the same token, they wanted to assure that a minority could not block action desired by most of the people. Their solution was to device a procedure by which (a) Two thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature or (b) A petition submitted to the Legislature by not fewer than ten thousand citizens which receives no fewer than ten thousand citizens which receives the concurrence of two thirds of the membership of both Houses of the Legislature is ratified by two thirds of the registered voters, voting in a referendum conducted by the NEC, not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature. The one year period is intended to give the registered voters ample time to carefully consider and scrutinize the proposals submitted to them.

The proposed referendum is a very important development with respect to the 1986 Constitution and also in so far as it relates to our system of governance. The provision was entrenched in Article 91 of the 1986 Constitution as a safeguard against facile amendments and also to facilitate good and well thought out changes to the document. Historically, there have been instances in our country where chief executives precipitated amendments of the Constitution to extend their term of office. There is no evidence of that at this time. In this special case, our people male and female, young and old are likely to take advantage of this important provision, at this moment of history, to introduce some meaningful reforms. The referendum for constitutional reform will enable Liberians to vote on a list of important provisions of the 1986 Constitution .

Problem with the Threshold Bill

One problem with the threshold bill is the concern of legislators from some of the small counties about representation in the House of Representatives in our bicameral legislative body, provided by the Liberian Constitution. Some lawmakers from small counties are worried about losing seats in the House of Representatives.

The history and basis for the Liberian bicameral or two-house legislative body can be traced to the United States Constitutional Convention in 1787, when the dispute between small and large states about representation in the legislative body was decided by “the Great Compromise’ which led to the establishment of a bicameral Congress. In the, the Senate, each state would have only two representatives. In the house, the House of Representatives, each State’s population would determine its representation The bicameral legislature with its principle of representation in the House of Representatives based on population was enshrined in Article 11 Section (1) of the 1847 Constitution. The idea was inspired by the American two-house legislature. It made an important concession to small counties. The Liberian Constitution is modeled on that of the United States and was in fact written by Professor Simon Greenfield of Harvard University.

The issue of representation in our National Legislature as it relates to population and constituencies was also debated during the crafting of the 1986 Constitution. Commissioners of the National Constitution Commission from small and sparsely populated counties wanted more representation for their counties, while those from large and more populated counties argued for representation to be based on population. The argument was about the delimiting of electoral constituencies for the House of Representatives. At issue was the question of how many people should constitute a constituency. Then, as now, it was an issue that aroused passions and emotions based on county connections. Commissioners from the small counties advanced formulae and scenarios that favored small counties, all of which were rejected by commissioners from the large counties. An important focus, during the debate was Montserrado County with its proportionally large number of constituencies and Representatives in the Legislature. Montserrado County, with Monrovia the most populated city in the country, was seen as the largest and most politically powerful county in the country, that had dominated the affairs of government in the country for many years. Several suggestions were made to alter the political structure and role of the county. A proposal to change the legal status of Monrovia to that of a Capital District or a separate county was rejected by the majority.

The Commissioners finally adopted the following among other provisions. Article 80(d) which provides that each constituency shall have an approximately equal population of 20,000, or such number of citizens as the legislature shall prescribe in keeping with population growth and movements as revealed by a national census, provided that he total number of electoral constituencies in the Republic shall not exceed one hundred. And the provision in Article 80 (e) which says that immediately following a national census and before the next elections, the Elections commission shall reapportion the constituencies in accordance with the new population figures so that every constituency shall have as close to the same population as possible, provided however, that a constituency must be solely within a county. In effect this position of the National Constitution Commission seemed to reaffirm the principle that representation in the House of Representatives in the National Legislature is population-related.

On the important question of a minimum number of constituencies for the counties, it is necessary to mention that in keeping with Article 91 of the Constitution any legislative measure designed to provide that no county should have less than two constituencies will involve a need to amend the Constitution. The process will require a ratification by two-thirds of the registered voters, voting in a referendum conducted by the Elections Commission not sooner than one year after the action of the Legislature.

A good solution to the problem and concern of small counties would be for the Legislature to advocate for a national strategy to direct meaningful economic investments and projects to small and less developed counties in the hope that in due course, individuals from other parts of the country will be attracted to said regions to help increase their population.

Failure to adopt a position that is based on the provisions of the Constitution extant could give rise to a constitutional dispute between the sparsely populated counties, on the one hand, and the more populated ones on the other hand, thereby leading to a Supreme Court litigation between the parties.

It is my appeal and ardent hope that, in view of the long delay, careful consideration of all the pros and cons of the issues relating to the Electoral Threshold Bill and the other electoral bills currently before the Honorable members of the National Legislature, the bills in question will be passed as a matter of urgency, in keeping with the recommendation submitted by the NEC.

Counselor Abraham L. James was a m ember of the 1986 Constitution Drafting Commission. He has been participating in the legislative hearings on the electoral bills and the national referendum currently before the Legislature. He is interested in arousing interest among Liberians at home and abroad in the 2011 elections and the referendum that will be associated with them. More articles are planned.

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