As I have written previously, informed by my previous trip at the time of the elections in October/November last year, the situation after the CDC boycott of the second round of elections, where UP subsequently won a comfortable victory, has in Monrovia been quite tense. Returning in late March it is good to see that people now, a few months down the road, are getting on with their ordinary lives again (but democratic elections has such an impasse on Liberia arresting most activities within the state for a timeframe of close to six months and thus have considerable impact on the national economy). Although I personally felt that CDC made some very irresponsible and strategically bad moves, especially the boycott of the runoff, they still remain much popular, maybe even more today, amongst ordinary people. The main reason for CDC coming out strong is that they are viewed as the party opposed to the resource-grabbing and wealth-keeping UP government.
In Monrovia we meet with some of the key Generals (many of NPFL origin) who were present at the CDC headquarters during the demonstration that turned into a riot on November 7 (the day before the runoff). Their version is that they had little option other than confrontation. Even if other witnesses present at the compound states that some were preparing Molotov cocktails, the generals state that unarmed they met an intruding police force and that they merely shielded their leaders. One of the lead generals of November 7, protected with magic, is said to have blocked bullets from the police (this kind of magic protection was common during the civil war). Unarmed they could not do much harm to the police, yet in their version they would have intensified resistance were it not for the CDC political leadership ordering them to back down. According to them, most generals together with other supports slipped out the back and ran down to the beach. They thus state that they were not part of the looting that took place on the road. On the beach several more CDC supporters were allegedly shot by the police. The bodies have never been found – but many observers believe that more than one person was killed and suggest that bodies of others were immediately buried on the beach.
A qualified guess would be that the boycott, the riot and subsequent threats of further violence which for some time appeared as a peril to national security would alienate supporters from the party, but it appears rather that the lead CDC narrative to the common man was that of a political party under attack – forced to defend itself (i.e. the narrative of the generals is the same as the one of the CDC supporters). These incidents and the problems within the party appear on the contrary not to have destroyed people’s trust in the party as CDC still remains the electable underdog. Although the riots are only partially blamed on the police and other instances of state failure there is also a greater critique of the state and the incumbent political party that feeds into CDC support.
CDC complained about fraud in the first round of the election, but presented scant proof of it. Still many people are hesitant to trust the UP politicians in power and widely believe there were real inconsistencies in the election. This is voiced out in street corners but also in popular songs such as “Monkey come down” were the singer states that the election was not an election but a selection. It is hard to know how much substance such ideas rests upon, but we at least have some indications of injustice in the process. An election monitor in Grand Gedeh observed ballot box stuffing during the runoff. During the first round CDC had a clear majority of the votes in a particular town, but due to the CDC boycott few voters appeared at the polling centre for the runoff on month later. However in the late afternoon on the day of the election the word came from the superintendent’s office that they needed to put in more votes. UP got a lot of votes at this particular location. Although this could be a mere anecdote it is interesting to compare it with the data from National Election Commission (www.necliberia.org). In Ziah town, the town the election monitor talked about, approximately 80% voted for CDC in the first round. Out of 955 votes UP got only 68 votes. However in the runoff UP received 590 votes out of a total 644. It is quite unlikely that such a number of voters would turn around and vote for UP. It is also interesting to note that the number of votes remained so high in this area, as in many places in the county only one out of ten who voted in the first round turned up at the runoff. In Ziah town it was 2 out of three. Also knowing the sentiments of people in the area makes such a dramatic change to the UP very hard to believe. I will also take a second example of ward pp01 in Zai where 166 people voted in the first round and only 19 of them laid their vote on UP. In the runoff 159 people voted, which is almost as many as in the first round, and 153 of them on UP (the rest were found invalid). So in this ward almost all voters should not only have disobeyed the boycott from the party the preferred in the first round, but they also voted in the complete opposite direction in the runoff. In the other four election wards the number of voters dropped to a tenth compared to the first round. I think these figures speak for themselves.
The problem is not just mathematical, UP would most probably have won anyway, but it is about trust and perception of the state. If people who reside in the margins of the state and also in the margins of the national economy consider elections as nothing more than a selection theater orchestrated by an urban elite (and remember that Liberia has a long tradition of such “selective elections” then not just the national project, but also post-conflict reconciliation stands on shaky feet. I don’t think that Grand Gedehians at this point think about revenge and grabbing power through another civil war, but the grudge that flawed elections feed certainly add to negative feelings about the state and also about the global democratic project. It is stored in the local memory bank for events to come. There is also another worrying issue and that is based on the fact that the incumbent UP government was already aware that they would win the presidential election. So why would they bother tampering with the local results? One answer could be that this was a display of power, where UP politicians showed the population that they are in the position of manipulating elections result whenever they feel like it. For obvious reasons this answer is rather disturbing.