It’s been 10 days since the official start of campaigning for the general elections to be held in the fall (the referendum in August will determine whether Liberians go to the polls in October or November), and candidates have hit the ground running. The senate chamber was emptier than usual on Thursday, with many senators out on the campaign trail rather than in session. Campaign posters – mostly of the homemade-looking, 8.5×11″ variety – have appeared on walls and the trunks of palm trees around town. The major Liberian dailies have begun running campaign ads and National Elections Commission public service announcements alongside news coverage of the candidates.
In many ways, campaigns here look similar to those in the US. Candidates have offered a slew of campaign promises. President Sirleaf has pledged to continue to develop Liberia, claiming that voters would be unwise to vote her out just as reforms are gaining speed. The leading opposition candidate, Charles Brumskine, recently promised to equip each village with an ambulance and provide Liberians over 65 with a monthly stipend. And as in any campaign, neither side hesitates to criticize the other’s policies or point out missteps. Sirleaf’s critics portray her as a darling of the international community who has failed to ameliorate some of the most basic problems at home. Brumskine’s detractors argue that he his plans are unrealistic and vague. The debate is on.
For outsiders like me, so far there has been only one glaring difference between campaigns here and at home: the accusation that Prince Johnson enlisted a witch doctor to assassinate one of his potential opponents. Yet for Liberians and academics who have studied politics and culture here, such claims aren’t without precedent. Secret societies, headed by zoes who allegedly possess supernatural powers, are a prominent part of the traditional Liberian society, especially in rural areas, and superstition played a major role in the civil war. (Stephen Ellis’ The Mask of Anarchy offers great insight into the role of secret societies and traditional beliefs in Liberian culture.) The accusation made headlines, but for the end sought rather than the means allegedly used.
What truly makes this election unique for onlookers and voters alike is that it is only the second election since the end of the civil war. That is also what makes it potentially volatile. Although Liberia has a blossoming civil society and seemingly strong democracy, experts point to the Ivory Coast as an example of how easily elections can go awry. In the streets here, despite public service announcements calling for peaceful elections, there is still a palpable tension. Many of the Lebanese and Indian merchants here say they are keeping their inventories low until the election has passed, and several have purchased plane tickets to leave the country during elections.
Few dispute that Sirleaf will win a second term, but uncertainty looms larger than poll numbers and campaigns (and witch doctors). There is an ominous sense that as much as Liberians hold their breath and cross their fingers, nobody can predict how the country itself will fare.