Monday, November 07, 2011

Liberia Incumbent Seen Winning National Elections

Liberia Incumbent Seen Winning

Wall Street Journal

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appeared poised to win re-election, even as violent protests erupted after her main challenger called for a boycott of Tuesday's vote.

Ms. Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace laureate and Africa's first and only female president, is seeking a second five-year term in the runoff against former Justice Minister Winston Tubman. The vote marks Liberia's second presidential election since the end of civil war in 2003 that left 250,000 dead—many at the hands of child soldiers who now make up a bulk of the population.

Some observers have predicted the vote would ease political tensions and improve economic prospects by drawing more foreign investment to the volatile, mineral-rich West African nation.

The hitch, however, is that Mr. Tubman says he won't participate—and asked his supporters to protest. He has claimed fraud in last month's first round, when he took 33% of the votes, trailing Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's 44%—days after Ms. Johnson Sirleaf was announced as a co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. After wavering over whether he would contest, Mr. Tubman on Friday said he would boycott the election.

On Monday, demonstrations in front of Mr. Tubman's campaign headquarters left one dead, prompting police to disperse the crowd with tear gas, the Associated Press reported. Witnesses said police had fired shots into the throng.

International observers—including the United Nations, Carter Center, and the Economic Community of West African States—praised the first-round vote. But Mr. Tubman said there was evidence of ballot-box tampering. He didn't respond to telephone calls seeking comment.

Ms. Johnson Sirleaf maintains that the first round was credible, and that the second will go on. "Do not allow any politician to hold our country hostage," she said on Saturday. "Do not allow Mr. Tubman to falsely claim 'boycott' when what he is doing is forfeiting the right to the finals because he fears defeat!"

Despite the boycott, Liberia isn't expected to tumble back into civil war—and few predict prolonged postelection violence. Some suspect Mr. Tubman is angling for a postelection deal, part of a now-common practice among Liberia's political class of bargaining for top government posts.

"Liberians are ready to turn the page after 14 years of civil war," said Lydie Boka, an analyst at Paris-based risk-monitoring consultancy Strategico. "[Mr. Tubman] is making a lot of noise as a bartering chip, to get on the table and get positions in the government."

Aside from the incumbent president, Mr. Tubman's withdrawal appears to favor one community: International investors, including Chevron Corp. and ArcelorMittal SA, who each signed billions of dollars worth of oil and mining contracts with Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's government. A Harvard-trained former loan officer with the World Bank, she leveraged her celebrity abroad to package Liberia as a welcoming destination for multinational investors.

"They're going to be relieved to have the incumbent stay in power," said Ms. Boka. "They're used to her."

A more difficult community to win over will be Liberia's jobless youth. Some 80% of the country remains unemployed. Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's signature accomplishments—increasing Liberia's state revenue, and securing $4.6 billion in debt relief—have delivered few jobs.

To rally Liberia's young, Mr. Tubman picked a running mate with electrifying popular appeal: football star George Weah, a rags-to-riches hero among Liberia's poor. But Mr. Tubman's campaign said little about unemployment or youth destitution, focusing its criticism instead on Ms. Johnson Sirleaf's support, in the early 1990s, for rebel leader Charles Taylor—an issue that failed to resonate among Liberia's young.

Ms. Johnson Sirleaf has said she would focus on addressing Liberia's employment challenges in her second term. Near the end of her first, she promoted large public-works projects, such as the electrification of Monrovia, and a recently repaved 51-mile road between the capital and Liberia's third-largest city, Buchanan.

"That's the kind of project Liberians want to see," Ms. Boka said. "She should now be able to take Liberia to the next stage of development."

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