Weah in fierce rematch with his main challenger from 2017
Liberia’s Presidential run-off election will take off on Tuesday, November 14, 2023, in a run-off election between incumbent President George Weah of the Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and Joseph Boakai of the main opposition Unity Party (UP) after a fiercely fought first round in which neither was able to score over 50 per cent of the vote to secure an outright victory.
The two politicians last faced off in the 2017 vote, when Weah ultimately won 61.54 per cent of the vote in the second round. It was the first democratic transfer of power since the end of the country’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that killed some 250,000 people and the 2013-16 Ebola epidemic that also killed thousands.
First runoff in 2017
Weah won that election amid high hopes brought about by his promise to fight poverty and generate infrastructure development. His goal, he had said in 2017, was to push Liberia from a low-income country to a middle-income one but Weah had been accused of not living up to key campaign to ensure justice for victims of the country’s civil wars.
Boakai, who served as Vice-President under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female leader, has campaigned on a promise to rescue Liberia from what he called Weah’s failed leadership.
“We are all excited and optimistic about what is now a national call to rally citizens of this great country for a rescue mission to reverse the hardships so many Liberians and their families have been subjected to,” Boakai said during a recent stop at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium.
The general election
Following the October 10, 2023 general election, President Weah, Former soccer star, led the first round, gaining 43.83 per cent of the vote while his main opponent, Joseph Boakai had 43.44 per cent. According to analysts, the razor-thin margin between them, and the absence of a strong third candidate, means the second round will also be very competitive as the remaining votes from the first round are scattered among 18 candidates that are now out of the race. The final victory will go to whoever manages to garner the support of the largest number of the eliminated candidates.
This year’s elections in Liberia marked a significant milestone for the fledgling democracy as it was the first general elections managed entirely by the government since the end of the civil war in 2003. External actors managed various aspects of previous polls, notably the United Nations Mission in Liberia, which provided security in all post-war general elections, except the most recent one.
The polls elected a president, 15 senators and 73 members of the House of Representatives, and were seen as a public verdict on the management of the economy and the fight against corruption.
Ahead of the run-off vote, both candidates have received endorsements from losing candidates from the first round. Weah has received the backing of Alexander Cumming's CCP party, although Cummings himself has remained neutral.
"I voted for Cummings in the last elections but this time, I'm giving my vote to George Weah," said Martin Sumo, a Cummings supporter.
Boakai has secured the endorsement of three of the four best performing candidates that were eliminated in the first round.
Political analyst Bovcon said collectively, the share of endorsements Boakai had received would still fall short of the 50 per cent threshold required to secure victory. A big unknown swing factor was the nearly six per cent of votes that were invalidated in the first round. Edward Appleton Jr, who came third in the first round with 2.20 per cent of the vote, endorsed Boakai last Tuesday, saying in a speech that "Liberians are searching for leadership that will deliver results."
Despite being widely acclaimed to be peaceful by the international community, the first round of voting recorded some irregularities, leading to the death of two people and the arrest of nine people for election fraud. This resulted in a dispute between the National Elections Commission (NEC) and the opposition, with three opposition parties calling for a forensic examination of used and unused ballot papers. Given the high stakes, the need for transparency in the runoff is greater than ever.
As campaigning opens for the runoff, several concerns from the first round of voting must be addressed. Provocative political rhetoric and the physical confrontations that incited violence have resurfaced. Some main opposition figures have threatened to foment unrest if the election is rigged. These threats must be taken seriously as similar warnings ahead of the first round led to a series of violent encounters, especially between the UP and CDC.
The challenges facing Liberia are not unfamiliar. Nigeria and Sierra Leone had similar issues in their general elections, reinforcing longstanding concerns about the transparency and credibility of polls in West Africa. To avoid the uncertainty and tension that followed voting in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, authorities must prioritise transparency in the runoff. That will require building public trust and confidence in the electoral process – and must start with the NEC.
Liberia began as a settlement for freed slaves from the United States in 1822, but declared itself an independent nation 25 years later. Liberia’s flag, constitution, form of government and many laws are modelled on those of the US. The capital is named in honour of America’s fifth President, James Monroe, who was in power when the freed slaves were repatriated.
Liberia is Africa's oldest republic, but it became known in the 1990s for its long-running, ruinous civil wars and its role in a rebellion in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
Although founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves, Liberia is mostly inhabited by indigenous Africans, with the slaves' descendants being five per cent of the population.