The Future Of Democracy And Multi-party Politics

By J. Kpanneh Doe

While in my study working on this article recently, I received a very surprising call from a longtime friend whom I have not spoken to for quite some time. Attempting to make up for lost time, we began our conversation by getting to know each other again, talking about our respective families, and how we were faring with life and work. Having discussed those personal issues, we immediately jumped on to another subject that is a passion: politics and the Liberian dilemma.

True to my friend's nature and intellect, he began to wonder about the Liberian people and their politicians. He asked "why is it that the Liberian politicians and country are so oblivious to history?" I asked my friend what was he talking about. He began by offering an analysis of the July 19, 1997, Liberian presidential elections, in which a warlord was elected over meaningful civilian politicians. Among several factors, he advanced the view that Liberian civilian politicians missed a golden opportunity by their failure to stick with a unifying strategy that would have dealt a blow to the warlord with whom they were in direct opposition.

My friend's perspective seemed to be shared by many observers and analysts of Liberian politics. Their reading of the July 19 election resonates with what occurred in 1985, when the country held its first multi-party elections under the regime of Samuel Kanyon Doe. At that time, the civilian politicians had to confront a dictator, but failed to seize the opportunity by not working with one another, and providing a unified front, instead became their own worst enemy by pursuing their own selfish agendas, thus enabling dictator Doe to emerge victorious in the 1985 elections.

While there appears to exist similarities between the 1985 and 1997 elections, they are few and far between. True, in 1985, it was a dictator, and 1997, a warlord - I believe my good friend and other analysts of Liberian politics either ignored or did not notice the enormous differences that were evident.

On closer examination, the argument for a unified front seemed much stronger in 1985 than it was in 1997. As a matter of fact, public confidence in Doe had eroded to an all-time low, his record on governance was dismal, the Liberian economy had taken a nose-dive, and Doe had become a pariah whose standing in the international community was nil, given his horrific record on human rights.

In contrast to 1985, the objective and necessary conditions did not exist in 1997 even in spite of failed efforts by opposition civilian politicians to form an alliance to challenge the warlord. The dynamics operating in 1997 were very different from those in 1985.

First and foremost, there was a situation of war. This war produced an avalanche of forces that Liberians have never experienced before. With the removal of Doe, there was not a common, identifiable problem that Liberians could associate with, thus creating a political vacuum that give birth to various competing forces and competing agendas.

Secondly, these competing forces or warring factions, namely: The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), United Liberation Movement (ULIMO-K&J), the Liberian Peace Council (LPC), and other minor factions such as the Lofa Defense Force (LDF), Bong Defense Force (BDF), Bassa Defense Force, etc., not only changed the political landscape, but the political discourse of the day. The multiplicity of warring groups suggest that warring factions not only sought territorial control, but economic control as well. "War economies" as they have come to be called, was the driving force fueling the prolongation of the War. That is why the country remained partitioned into three war zones with each major faction controlling a piece of the country. The NPFL controlled North and Central Liberia, ULIMO(J & K) ran Western Liberia, while the LPC pillaged Southeastern Liberia.

Thirdly, in the context of the elections, peace and security considerations superseded all others as a determining factor in the decision-making process of the Liberian people. In an ironical twist of history, Liberians elected a warlord over a civilian. In a somewhat distorted thinking, Liberians judged that the warlords were well-positioned to provide needed peace and security to a country shattered by war.

That is why the results of the elections overwhelmingly favored the "war parties" -Charles Taylor, National Patriotic Party, and Alhaji Kromah, All Liberian Coalition Party, which captured 80 percent of the votes - while the "civilian parties", prominent among which were the famed Unity Party of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, United Peoples' Party of G. Baccus Matthews, The Liberian Peoples' Party of Togba-Nah Tipoteh, and the Alliance of Political Parties of Cletus Wotorson, together only captured 20 percent of the total votes cast.

This brings us to a sober realization: What is the future of democracy and multi-party politics? Or better yet, what is the future of Liberian opposition parties?

It would be rather difficult or foolhardy to peer into the crystal ball of what the future holds for Liberian politics, but if for nothing else, there are some important lessons to draw from our past and most recent experience.

Liberia has always occupied a rather unique place or position in the panoply of African politics. Unlike many African countries, Liberia has followed a pattern all of its own. The country, for example, did not have to deal with the foreign presence of a colonial master (not exempting the fact that it was a settler colony). It also did not have to engage in an independence-nationalist struggle from foreign occupation like many African countries. But, like many African countries, Liberia has not had any democratic traditions and had fallen into the same league of being a one - party state.

It can be said, that the closest the country came to experiencing or developing a democratic foundation was during the decade of the '70s. To be more specific, during the administration of the late William R. Tolbert, Liberia witnessed the rise of political activism -political pressure groups and movements such as the Progressive Alliance of Liberia (PAL), the Movement for Justice in Africa (MOJA), including workers organizations were allowed to flourish. Not to leave out the rise of student activism that permeated the walls of the universities and secondary schools. Then there was the formation of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA). And, of course, the rise of an activist and burgeoning press was also evident. Some have referred to this period as one of Liberia's "finest decade" in which an atmosphere was created for the creative development of thoughts and ideas that the country had never experienced before. There was a sense that the country was going somewhere if the process had not been shortchanged by a military intervention or coup d'etat of 1980. True, change was necessary but this is not what Liberians had envisioned. Given Liberia's unenviable history of failed attempts to develop a democratic culture, the July 19 elections may provide yet another opportunity to unearth the roots and the "ghosts" of democracy that continue to haunt us.

Clearly, elections do not guarantee democracy, but surely provide the seeds or basis for laying a democratic foundation if nurtured. Numerous examples abound both in Africa and elsewhere, i.e., Sierra Leone, Mali, Sudan, Haiti, Venezuela, etc., where elections have been held, only to see the wheels of democracy reversed in a short space of time. Liberia could be no exception to this pattern if our fragile democracy is not nourished.

Democracy is a complex process of institution-building, development of a liberal political culture and traditions, an uninhibited growth of free speech, an unfettered development of the press, and respect for not only the rule, but the due process of law. In addition, there are others who have argued that a successful democracy must have a stable "middle class," strong civil institutions and a literate population. A strong middle-class, they argue, would be well-placed to govern and manage civil institutions, and also pay taxes. Whereas a literate population would be educated enough about the issues, and could form alliances based on interests.

Evidently, there are opportunities that can enable Liberian democracy to succeed if the ruling government and the opposition begin to sort out their acts. Or for that matter learn from the lessons and experiences of the past. Both are important stakeholders in ensuring that democracy succeed.

Significantly, the ruling government cannot pretend to be the sole bearers of truths or claim to have monopoly over ideas. No person or group of individuals has a repository of solutions to our problems. The task of nation-building requires citizens' participation and involvement. And this can only occur where citizens have the liberty and means of expressing themselves freely and without suppression. The ruling government must also recognize that there will be differences of opinion and views regarding the direction of the country. A country bleeding from war and in need of healing cannot afford not to listen to the opinions of its citizens.

Then, of course, there is the question of the Liberian opposition parties. What role should they play and how can they become an effective mechanism for developing the roots of democracy? Multi-party politics is central and it is a necessary condition for achieving a successful democracy, but it can also become problematic if it is not carefully managed. One of the hard truths of the recently held elections is that there existed too many political parties, a total of thirteen. Many contend that for a small country like Liberia, with less than a population of 3 million people and a high illiteracy rate, this may not portend well for the future of democracy.

The phenomenon of the multiplicity of political parties may be necessary in the early phases of developing our democratic culture, but if this trend continues it could become dangerous for our fragile democracy. In the Liberian case, there existed no real ideological or programmatic differences amongst the thirteen political parties. All of the parties in their manifestoes expressed their commitment to the three pillars of democracy: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the rule of law. The only noticeable difference lay in the personalities who ran the party.

That the thirteen parties were personality-based, rather than ethnic or regionally based, may serve as a good beginning and a departure of what is typical of most other African countries where political parties are developed based on ethnic or regional loyalties, i.e., Rwanda, Nigeria, etc., which has so often destroyed the very fabric of democracy. It may well be that the progressive and radical traditions established in the '70s may be coming home to roost; it may offer some real good lessons for strengthening Liberian democracy.

The opposition, therefore, has an equal responsibility to ensure that Liberia's fragile democracy is strengthened. Three proposals are in order here: First, Liberian opposition must find a way to begin developing "popular politicians" with broad appeal and the capacity to transcend ethnic, regional, religious, or professional lines; secondly, there is a strong case to be made for Liberian opposition parties to find a way to solidify their efforts through consolidation and mergers or alliances; thirdly, the Liberian opposition must initiate the process of discussing the need and formation of reducing the thirteen parties to no more than three political parties. This intra-party summit should be led by politicians with stature and integrity. Thus, the need to make Liberia a three-party state.

The litmus test of the growth and strength of our democracy may actually come in the year 2002, by the time of the second multi-party elections. But how we get to this point will be a challenge for both the ruling party and the opposition. Now is the time to start.