Chris Blattman

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.

10 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post–even if I’m getting to it a few days late. Rob’s observations were greatly appreciated, as it provides insights into one of the largest areas of concern in these elections–legitimacy. It was encouraging to hear a first-hand account of voting in the rural communities. And it is touching (in a dare-I-say Kristoffian way) to see the patience and persistence demonstrated by Liberian citizens. Any similar first-hand accounts any one is aware of outside of Montserrado County? I’m a bit concerned that the South East, for example, would not have the same access or turn out, but that’s a gut feeling.

    My other thought in response to Rob’s commentary is more about the quality of democracy in Liberia. Rob, I suspect you’re right that the school will not be rebuilt in the community you wrote about. However, I would posit that it’s for reasons outside of the tax base. Liberia is still a highly centralized country, and local leaders–Superintendents, District Commissioners, Mayors and even the Traditional Chiefs at various levels–are not locally elected, but appointed by the Executive. This lack of accountability to the community they serve make them ineffective local administrators who are more loyal to the president than to their neighbors. Even the recent community development funds and programs were not 100% enacted with local accountability in mind, leaving it to the national senators and representatives to monitor and manage the accounts. Until this lack of local democracy is accounted for, it is difficult to see room for meaningful and sustainable progress.

  2. Interestingly enough it is *not* the far flung polling stations that are reporting last, but some in Montserrado and close to Monrovia.

    Personally I think it’s a good thing that there is a second round. If anyone had won in the first round, then the risk of someone shouting “foul play” (justified or not) would have been far bigger. As it is, the few complaints regarding the elections are relatively minor.

  3. Cry Africa Cry! The only way that Africa can truly experience the real meaning of electing a responsible and capable office bearers is none other than – CIVIC EDUCATION. It will take years, but a journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step. Since there is ‘revenge’ or ‘reward’ in the next elections, that is a good indicator that despite of gigantic illiteracy rates across Africa – people, its citizens are slowly but surely learning to vote. Let me hear someone suggesting the best way we can educate – Civic Education.
    In Uganda, for Gods’ sake votes are simply and outrightly bought! Man this is not fair.

  4. Chris,

    Some things to consider:

    2005 had overwhelming turnout as well and was described exactly the same way. The first days of counting in that election showed Winston Tubman and Korto and Sirleaf as doing surprisingly well….George Weah, who actually beat Sirleaf 28.3% to 19.8% in that first round, trailed initially. People got very excited and up in arms but the first round results were 28.3 to 19.8% which led to a run-off btwn Weah & Sirleaf. (That she would win 60-40 only 3 weeks later…)

    It is way, way, way too early and too many votes left uncounted in the critical Montserrado County (the largest amount of registered voters by a country mile and a CDC stronghold in most parts) Keep in mind this is a very tiny country and Montserrado influences a huge percentage of the election as the vast majority of the population lives there. Once 60-70% of those votes are in we will have a very good idea where things stand.

    It’s fun to think Sirleaf will win a first round victory. All the western intellectuals/academics/members of Int’l press seem to have this view. All good. But not only will that not happen there is still a very good probability that CDC could end up leading the first round. There is roughly 25% -29% of the vote in at this point… Way early and again don’t be surprised if CDC comes back from the very small margin they are behind currently in the remaining 70% of the vote yet to be counted.

    And I think the story here, up to this point, is that EJS, incumbent, newly minted Nobel peace prize winner and Int’l “darling” is seeing a majority of the Liberians rejecting her. This coupled with your aforementioned acknowledgement of the resources and organization is more surpassing still. Not a huge showing by the incumbent thus far. This should be the story but of course won’t be.

    Surprises thus far:

    Brumskine has, thus far, had a miserable showing. A big surprise. He was largely expected to place a strong 3rd.

    PYJ was expected to be doing what he’s doing in Nimba, but he’s doing far better in other areas than people would have guessed. He’s essentially in Brumskine’s “spot”… His influence in the 2nd round will be over inflated by the prognosticators and by himself.

    CDC not doing nearly as well in the SouthEast as was expected. Tubman’s uncle very popular there with the older folks and George Weah is too. Grand Kru in ’05 voted over 90% for Weah. Not happening this time around. But I caution you…those numbers are tiny. So it matters little either way.

    What to look for and some inside info:

    The USG of UNMIL made a call to NEC chairman Fromoyan and to LMC (who is posting results) and Sireaf’s/UP radio vehicle “Truth FM” (think Fox News for Republicans) got a shout down in the way they were announcing results favoring Sirleaf’s strongholds and not CDC’s…the vast majority of which not reported yet for the latter. So expect results to be a little different in terms of HOW they are announced going forward and you will see the “needle” move in a different direction.

    It’s all about the second round which is unquestionably happening. Bet on it.

    And this is where things will get interesting and the horse trading will begin in earnest. You can also bet that rumors distributed through leaflets will be on full display.

    In the 2nd round of 2005, on the DAY of round 2, UP, Ms. Sirleaf’s party, came out with a rumor that George Weah, who had just celebrated his birthday in Tuzon – (birthplace of Samuel Doe) was going to name two mass murderers to his cabinet. This of course is a lie. Myself and other journalists from France covered the event in Tuzon. But this scared the bejesus out of the Nimbians who suffered horrendously under these two “supposed new CDC cabinet members”.

    The effect? Ellen’s results in Nimba County the first round? Sixth place. (Nimba only second to Montserrado in importance and numbers.) Sixth place.

    Second round post rumor? 77.1 to 22% favor of Sirleaf.

    The leaflets are being printed as we speak. We will see who’s party is more effective at scaring a critical block of the voters.

    1. Chris, it’s me again, Eric, from Glenna’s blog. I hope your hardcore campaign for CDC on the internet won’t lead you to suicide when Ellen wins. Like i said before on Glenna’s blog, these people know what they’re talking about. They didn’t just wake up randomly on Liberia’s elections day and start blogging nonsense for people to read. I’m starting to wonder if you have any personal deal with CDC that would benefit you when they’re in power, lol.

      1. Eric,

        Great to hear from you yet again. I feel like I have a stalker.

        Please feel free to repudiate any of the data I refer to in this post. As you follow Mr. Blattman’s blog you will know that he’s big on data… And I’ll be more than happy to email Chris official documentation from 2005 NEC as well as information today if you have any issues of anything that I wrote. I’d be very happy to go over the data.

        For everyone else actual tallies should not be followed via the Liberian Media Center per Chris’s earlier email as NEC is online now with great detail on current results.

        NEC Official website here:

        Speaking of Data note the following results at 10pm EST U.S. October 13, 2011

        16.5% of the vote tallied at this point. 83.5% left to go.

        EJS at 44.5% CDC at 26.5% PYJ 13.5% Brumskine 7.8%

        Montserrado only 2.5% of results tallied as of this writing. Something is wrong here, very wrong.

        Gbarpolu – UP stronghold – 62% of results are in…

        Rivercess – Should have been CDC stronghold but Ellen leads by 8%…91% of votes tallied.

        Grand Gedeh – CDC stronghold that is going their way overwhelming as expected – 63.1 to 21.8%. However only 26.7% tallied.

        There is a trend emerging that could give one pause as to why results are being tallied and reported more quickly in certain areas. I am no election expert but perhaps there is one that follows this blog and could comment further if there is some electioneering advantage. I can’t imagine there is b/c votes are already tallied.

        Unless it’s psychological. Only 16.5% of vote is in yet everyone believes without a shadow of a doubt that Charles Brumskine has failed miserably. Myself included. Yet only 16.5% of the vote is in!!! He could more than make up for a slow start in the remaining 83.5% left to be tallied. But the public perception in Liberia is surprise that he’s done so poorly… And that was based on what the LMC was reporting plus people calling in from their cell phones who were hearing the tallies at various polls. Make sense how this could completely present a bias towards Mr. Brumskine?

        @ Eric – I gave you my email as I’d be happy to converse with you offline the blogs comments to have a constructive conversation. I don’t think mentioning suicide and conspiracies that I’m some CDC secret agent are helpful for you, me or the good people that spend time on blogs such as these to get away from petty commentary such as what you left here. Feel free to email me and we can get into a good tussle if you so desire.



  5. Thanks to Rob for sharing his observations.

    Liberia’s state capacity will hopefully grow over time. For now, my (inexpert) feeling is that if people go a few election cycles without getting their school’s rebuilt, they’ll take the hint and do it themselves. In the best case scenario, this might even be incentive to develop a strong civil society. All things considered, Liberia’s democracy is too young for me to be anything but happy hearing about campaign promises and lines to vote.

  6. If I put Guatemala instead of Liberia, the article would still make a lot of sense. Specially regarding promises and promises, bla bla bla. Thanks for sharing.
    A piece of evidence that might work for some African countries:

  7. Great report from Rob. All important observations. I guess I’m less disenchanted by his point that “campaign cheap talk may stifle local-level collective action.” There may be some truth to this, but I find something actually encouraging about the fact that these specific promises are embedded in an actual democratic process. When the school doesn’t get built, the town chief knows who made the promises and whom to vote against next time. Isn’t this situation preferable to one where the promise has been made my an international donor or NGO that is completely unaccountable to the town chief?

  8. I’d argue that the fact that a village chief believes there WILL be a next election at which he can vote the bums out is the single best indicator that things in Liberia are moving in the right direction. (Ok, a bit hyperbolic, but still….)

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