NATIONAL ELECTION 2017
On October 10, 2017, Liberia held its general elections, with former footballer George Weah winning 38.4 percent of the vote and incumbent Joseph Boakai winning 28.8 percent. With neither reaching an outright majority of the vote (over 50 percent), a run-off election was held on December 26, 2017 between the two candidates. George Weah was pronounced the winner on December 28, 2017 by the Electoral Commission, with 61.5 percent of the votes.
During this election, Liberian women continued to face significant barriers to contesting and winning elected office. The presidential race was open, largely peaceful, and highly competitive, with 20 registered candidates, including one woman. Six women ran for vice president. For the House of Representatives, 983 candidates, of which 156 were women (16 percent), contested 73 seats. The vast majority of the 156 women running for legislative seats were first-time candidates.
To help safeguard the integrity of the electoral process, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) fielded a comprehensive international observation mission, and also provided technical and financial support to the Elections Coordinating Committee (ECC), a nonpartisan network of civil society organizations that monitors, documents, and reports on election issues to promote transparency and accountability in Liberia and strengthen the democratic process. The ECC was formally established in 2011 jointly with the Institute for Research and Democratic Development, Actions for Genuine Democratic Alternatives, the National Youth Movement for Transparent Elections, the Center for Media Studies and Peace Building, and the West Africa Network for Peace Building.
The ECC conducted a voter registration process during the pre-election period and collected incidents forms. There was no violence against women recorded by observers.
As part of the international observation mission, NDI also conducted two pre-election assessment missions with political leaders and experts from across the African continent and the world. The first occurred in February of 2017. Within NDI’s published observations and recommendations from the assessment mission, the delegation noted that they found particular barriers facing women who were seeking to register to vote. The delegation heard reports that many women found it difficult to visit registration centers during the opening times. For example, female workers reportedly were not always able to receive permission to leave work to register. In September, 2017, NDI deployed its second international mission, which noted that while the election law that was amended in 2014 to include a provision that stipulates that political parties “should endeavor” to reach at least 30 percent women on their candidate lists (Section 4.5 of Liberia’s New Election Law), female candidates represented less than 16 percent of the total number of registered candidates for the 2017 elections. Only one out of 26 parties, the Liberia Restoration Party (LRP), reached the 30 percent benchmark. The LRP is also the only party to nominate a female presidential candidate. Three political parties – Alternative National Congress (ANC), All Liberia Party (ALP), and Unity Party (UP) – had between 14 and 20 percent representation of women candidates.
Liberian citizen observer groups also informed the delegation about accounts of VAW-E that was occurring through smear campaigns and insults against women candidates on social media and in public places, as well as reports of physical intimidation and threats against female candidates.
The ECC deployed 2,170 trained and accredited observers including 170 mobile observers and 2,000 polling place observers deployed in all 73 districts. Of the 2000 observers, 832 are systematically deployed as Rapid Response Observers, 498 of which are deployed based on a proportional distribution by district. To administer the 2017 elections, each of the country’s 5,390 polling places were staffed by five polling officials, one of whom was a presiding officer. At least two NEC staff in 67 percent of the 498 polling places observed by the ECC were women, however, only 22 percent of observed polling places had a woman as the presiding officer.
Based on reports from ECC observers deployed to polling stations in all 73 districts, the election day was largely peaceful, with a low amount of incidents reported of violence to both the ECC and other observation missions. Out of 140 total (violent and non-violent) incident reports, 13 percent (18 cases) were marked as incidents of violence against women, including incidents of intimidation, harassment, threats and physical violence. These cases were also exacerbated due to the turmoil with long lines to be able to vote, including pregnant or elderly women not given special consideration to be able to vote quicker than others.
On December 25, Liberia held a run-off election. Of the ECC’s 1,100 observers, 832 were systematically deployed as Rapid Response Observers and 498 were deployed based on a proportional distribution by district.While 69 percent of the 498 polling places observed by the ECCs had at least two female NEC staff, five percent of observed polling stations had no women NEC staff present.
There were no incidents reported of violence against women in elections out of the two incidents reported.
Women’s Political Participation in Liberia
Women continue to play an active role in the promotion of peace and the consolidation of democracy in Liberia; however, many of them still face significant challenges as voters, candidates, and pollworkers. Lower literacy rates and cultural and financial barriers inhibit disproportionately their ability to access information about the election process and avenues for political participation. In fact, women in Liberia face literacy rates two times lower than men’s. Civil society organizations also noted that there was no mobilization campaign held to encourage women to vote before the run-off. Men participated in significantly higher numbers than women, with 4,246 women participating to 10,435 men. While the distance needed to travel to registration centers affected communities as a whole, rural women had less access to transportation and more responsibilities limiting their participation, including household duties. Women also faced security concerns related to walking long distances after dark. The NEC also faced funding and transportation challenges that inhibited their ability to reach illiterate women in rural areas.
NDI observers noted that during both the first and second round, in all polling places visited, there were women present as observers and/or party agents. LTOs noted that parties recruited a number of women as party agents although with more difficulty in the southeast because of the literacy requirements and the reluctance of some women to take on responsibility in the public sphere. The main citizen election observer groups also recruited women as LTOs and STOs. Among the ECC observers deployed during voter registration, the campaign period and the election days, women were well-represented and constituted 44 percent of rapid response observers for both the first round and second round. The WSR deployed a contingent of 322 all-female election monitors. The use of female observers to monitor the election process was meant to encourage women’s turnout and to act as a deterrent to electoral violence, including violence against women. It was also considered a meaningful way for women to actively participate in politics, less likely to be opposed by their family than running for office. According to NDI’s Getting Ready to Lead program and the Liberia Women’s National Political Forum, women also increasingly engaged as campaign managers and staff for men and women candidates during these elections.
Women also faced many obstacles to being nominated as candidates and running for office. Political parties did not uphold the 2014 election law that stipulates that they “should endeavor to ensure that the governing body and its list of candidates has no less than 30 percent. Women aspirants expressed to the delegation that they have not heard parties discuss this provision, nor has the NEC clarified how it will be enforced. The opaque nomination process and limited avenues for women to rise through political party ranks remain significant barriers to obtaining party nominations. Political parties also offered women limited opportunities to run in the primary process in 2017. Many women faced unfair practices in candidate selection that compromised their ability to secure their party’s nomination. For example, some women candidates received assurances from party leaders that they would run unopposed, only to find last-minute that a man backed by party leaders entered the race. Additionally, some women were told they needed to bribe party leadership to be selected.
When interviewed by the NDI mission, female candidates indicated the lack of access to funding for campaign activities as the primary obstacle for their campaigns. The vast majority of women were competing at a disadvantage against established, prominent and incumbent men who had financial and material advantages. Women candidates also cited logistical challenges, especially the lack of transportation, as limiting their ability to reach voters or arrange for their transportation on election day.
Cultural factors also weighed heavily as barriers to political participation, as women who try to enter politics in visible and active roles face discriminatory attitudes. It is commonly believed in Liberia that the public sphere is not a woman’s place and that women are not fit for decision-making. Traditional and religious views confine women to household roles, and the potential reactions of their husbands, families and communities deter them from entering in politics. During the pre-election period, women struggled to obtain the endorsements of traditional leaders and also received less media coverage in elections than their male counterparts.
VAW-E is a longstanding challenge in Liberia that presents significant barriers to women’s participation and affects electoral integrity more broadly. The country’s legal framework fails to address gender-based violence specifically in the context of elections. Liberia is party to the Istanbul Convention on the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, and has a set of laws against various instances of sexual and gender-based violence, focused on rape and domestic violence. However, the election law does not address the question of violence, and neither do the Ganta and Farmington River Declarations address violence against women in their commitment for violence-free elections. All five types of VAW-E (physical, sexual, psychological, threats and coercion and economic violence) occurred during Liberia’s 2017 elections and affected to varying degrees women voters, election workers, activists, and aspirants.
Civil society’s robust efforts to secure a peaceful election -- including a range of violence monitoring, mitigation, and prevention activities -- complemented those of the security sector. The UN Peace Huts network operated in more than 20 communities to mobilize female peace leaders to promote violence free elections and engaged in mediation to resolve tensions. The Peace Hut established by Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET)-West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) in Monrovia was particularly attentive to reports of violence against women in elections. One special focus they monitored was on hate speech directed against female candidates and verbal intimidation against activists and voters because of their participation. In Monrovia, the network identified an increase in cases of election-related domestic violence and conducted awareness raising campaigns to reduce their incidence in some communities.
Two notable civil society-led, electoral violence mitigation mechanisms were the Liberia Election Early Warning and Response Group (LEEWARG) and the Women’s Situation Room (WSR). LEEWARG convened Liberian CSOs, the police, the interreligious council, the Women’s Situation Room, Peace Huts’ women leaders, UNMIL, the AU, and other interlocutors to function as an early warning system and violence mitigation mechanism, producing situation reports and interventions toward the political actors involved in incidents. The WSR set up a hotline and two call centers - one in Monrovia and one in Suakoko - to help coordinate interventions by the LNP, the Liberia Immigration Services and NEC’s responses to election related incidents, including violence against women. The WSR deployed 322 women observers to monitor elections and electoral violence. Only one incident involved physical violence and required the intervention of the LNP.
Several women candidates experienced threats and intimidation. The Liberian Women National Political Forum documented more than a dozen incidents against women, including a direct physical threat. NDI was informed of an instance of where a candidate was physically forced off the stage at her campaign event, and her billboards were destroyed. Presidential candidate MacDella Cooper was the victim of threats, some from the leadership of her own party. Some candidates also experienced theft and destruction of their campaign material. Others reported being victims of intimidation and threats based on traditional rituals barring women from certain areas. During the election dispute process between the two rounds, the house of a woman associate justice of the Supreme Court had rocks thrown at it.
The mission also received direct testimonies of instances of psychological violence against women candidates such as smear campaigns and insults on social media and in public places. The monitoring efforts of UN Women, WONGOSOL, and Liberia New Narratives confirmed that social media platforms were the most common site of reported incidents of VAW-E, including the dissemination of naked images of an aspirant. These instances of psychological violence were under-reported during the election period, as they are not necessarily identified by the victims themselves as incidents of violence. Women incumbents pointed out that, while the number of incidents may have been similar in 2011 and 2017, their impact in today’s context was far more significant and long-lasting, given the increasing role of social media in spreading such incidents. In addition, there were no mechanisms to deal with these attacks. The only reference to psychological violence against women in elections is made in a general provision of the 2011 and 2017 Codes of Conduct for political parties, which explicitly prohibit the use of abusive, profane or inflammatory language or incitement, on the basis of gender, ethnicity and religion. The female candidates who suffered from psychological violence did not turn to the NEC or the LNP to file a complaint and seek redress. However, an incumbent who was a victim of public accusations alleging her involvement in child trafficking submitted a complaint to the criminal court.
NDI also observed derogatory comments and accusations in traditional media referring to women candidates’ personal lives, questioning their morality, and focusing on their marital status to disavow their capacity to govern. During the nomination period, several women candidates faced biased, negative reporting and derogatory comments on talk show programs, though the nature of the coverage improved as the campaign period progressed. In one particularly stark example, on October 26 the Corruption Watch newspaper accused Ms. Howard-Taylor of having “unstable relationships” with a number of men. In an editorial the paper openly urged people not to vote for her because “we feel she has not lived a good moral life to set an example for the younger generation of girls.” The editorial went on to say: “We are therefore of the opinion that when she is elected, female prostitution may be on the rise.”
The ECC’s data supports what NDI and other monitoring groups witnessed. While the overall pre-election and election period was peaceful, there were incidents of VAW-E recorded and while women try to lead within their communities, they continue to face backlash from their societies due to institutional and cultural barriers.