Elections in Liberia

No, this is not a topic of majority interest, but I have so few areas of expertise I might as well exploit the ones I have, no matter how meager that actual expertise.

SMAG Media is providing the closest thing to real-time results. With less than a quarter of the vote counted, Sirleaf, the world’s newest peace prize winner, has about 45% of the vote.

The news services are saying there will be a second round runoff. I think it’s too soon to say and (with a little less confidence than before) I will still predict a first round win, just for fun.

Why? To the best of my knowledge (which isn’t very best), Sirleaf’s party was the only one with the organization and resources to campaign and organize in every district. Getting out the vote matters, and turning the local honchos to your cause matters even more. And these more far-flung places will be the last to report poll numbers.

Glenna Gordon’s excellent on-the-scene photos are here.

Finally, if you seek actual expertise, my co-author and Yale grad student, Rob Blair, is on the ground. He emails this firsthand account:

Yesterday I watched Liberians go to the polls in the country’s second presidential election after 14 years of civil war. That sentence sounds inspiring when I read it back to myself now, but to be honest, I didn’t anticipate feeling moved. Chalk that up to four years of academic political science—enough to make a skeptic of the most avid democracy-lover. But I do feel moved, in some good ways and some bad.

The mechanics of representation in Liberia work like this. Lines form at polling stations as early as six in the morning, and many voters wait all day to cast their ballots. In the rural areas, I saw many women wearing exuberantly-colored dresses usually reserved for Sundays; were it not for the heat and the interminable lines, things might have seemed almost festive. Due to the country’s astronomical illiteracy rate, candidates’ photos are printed directly on the ballots alongside their party logos. That, combined with partisan pluralism, means that the ballots themselves are gargantuan, especially for the 64-member House of Representatives. Votes are sealed in large, Crate-and-Barrel-style plastic tubs, and tallied by lantern-light.

Traveling around rural Montesserado County, I was struck by how many Liberians had opted to walk the long distance to the polling station and forfeit an entire day of labor in order to vote. Several villages were almost empty when I arrived. In one, the town chief had stayed behind to “mind the community” while his constituents—all of them—went to vote. In another, residents rotated in and out of town to vote in batches.

I expected turnout to fall as I travelled further out into the bush, but that seemed not to be the case. The towns I visited were not particularly remote by Liberian standards (the furthest was only a two-hour walk from the nearest polling station), but still, turnout was surprising. Voters told me about their exhaustion with war and their expectations for the next administration. There seemed to be something genuinely beautiful about all of this. My Kristof moment: doe-eyed watching democracy unfold.

There is, however, something sad about it as well. In one community I visited, I asked the town chief how he adjudicated among the dozens of candidates on the ballot. He pointed to the village’s dilapidated school. During the previous congressional campaign, the district’s current representative had promised that he would repair the building, but never did. Now an opposition candidate has promised that he’ll do the job instead. That was enough to convince the town chief, who rallied the village in the opposition’s favor.

The tragedy is this: the government is almost certainly not going to rebuild that school. Campaign promises are always suspect, but they are especially so in a place like Liberia, where the tax base is meager and the capacity of any given politician to deliver social services to any given community is, to say the least, slim.

Promises like these risk alienating citizens from a government they ostensibly elected. Worse, campaign cheap talk may stifle local-level collective action. In this village, the school was run-down but not beyond repair. When I asked the town chief what he would do if the government didn’t deliver, his answer was disheartening: he would wait for the next election. It’s hard to say whether or not the community would succeed if it attempted reconstruction on its own. But as long as candidates’ campaign pledges continue to resonate, it is less likely to try.

Seen in this light, the “massive turnout” that the newspapers are reporting this morning starts to seem disenchanting. To the extent that turnout is driven by campaign promises, more voters may mean more disillusionment and less communal collective action down the line.

This is my first time observing an election outside the U.S., and I’m eager to be proved wrong. I’ll be interested to hear how readers respond.